Gold medal for audiences

Column for Newcastle’s Journal newspaper-published Friday 10th August

I am starting to get worried now. What if my newfound interest in sport carries on after the Olympics? What if I become one of those people who can’t attend weddings without nipping out to check the score? What if I want to buy a nose clip to go swimming in and am able to answer something on “A Question of Sport?”. I know it’s not just me. A month ago would not have found me and the nice lady doing my nails chatting animatedly about the best way to avoid a disqualification in track cycling. The optimism of the Olympic Opening Ceremony hasn’t worn off either. It’s got even worse during my week at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. Everything seems bathed in a rosy glow. Instead of seeing the crowds as “Those pesky people blocking the path”, I saw them as “Those wondrous folk who are open to new cultural experiences”.

Lots of them are at the shows Northern Stage are curating at St Stephen’s centre in the New Town under the “Made in the North of England” banner. It really is bathed in a rosy glow, because they’ve transformed this old church into a cosy, welcoming, contemporary space with a cafe where my pot of tea was served in actual vintage china. Whilst it may be entertaining to step into a fringe venue and know you can see anything from a man swallowing his own testicles while singing the Marseillaise to an elf performing all of Shakespeare’s plays in Mandarin Chinese, it’s also satisfying to step into a fringe venue and know there’s a handpicked mixture of shows that won’t be rubbish.That’s another disturbing thing though. I didn’t used to think I liked theatre either. It was too full of actors acting and constructing pauses more overplayed than Chris Tarrant’s on “Who Wants To Be a Millionaire”. But Northern Stage produce fantastic conventional plays and also the increasingly popular theatre in which audiences get to actively participate. Like The Suggestibles’ Gary Kitching’s one man show about a man and his ventriloquists dummy which depends partly on audience suggestions, and Newcastle based Unfolding Theatre’s show about the humour and pathos of sport, where you might get to play darts among other things.

Then there are plenty of North East acts at The Stand comedy club, and hopefully more coming through in future years thanks to their Newcastle outpost. The likes of Gavin Webster, Tony Jameson, John Scott, and Lee Fenwick whose “Geoff the Entertainer” show I saw and is a brilliant piece of character comedy and pathos which also blurs the boundaries between theatre and comedy and gets the audience involved.

Former North East Arts Council boss Mark Robinson wrote in his blog this week about the way lottery funding transformed sports in this country and wonders if similar shouldn’t happen for the arts. Proper investment’s contributed to the massive leap from the one gold medal we won in Atlanta to the haul we’ve netted so far this time. What if artists also benefitted from the type of long term investment that would enable them to dedicate their lives to becoming better at what they do? I suppose one problem is that measurement is not as straightforward. Paula Radcliffe can prove she spent the money wisely because she clocked up two hundred miles a week and wore all her limbs away. A writer might be able to show you two hundred used tea bags and a slightly hurty thumb. In very different ways, however, organisations like Northern Stage and The Stand are making that investment in talent by helping bear the costs of them having the massive showcase that the fringe provides.

The next bit of the medal winning equation is the element that’s proved so helpful in the Olympics- a supportive audience cheering the home team on. Not everyone can become a medal winning athlete but we could all play the part in the glorious Utopian theatre that’s been the Olympics by being a brilliant audience for other live events and thereby invest in the next generation of talent. Never been to theatre or live stand up comedy by someone not on the telly? I bet a month ago you didn’t have a view on the best way to dismount a pommel horse or win an omnium. For the cost of a cinema ticket, you could help Northern talent go for gold and feel better about the world into the bargain.

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Where’s My Theatre Invitation?

Mostly I’ve been a radio journalist, then a poet. I don’t know much about theatre apart from that I don’t like sitting watching actors pretending to be other people and ignoring the audience. That just feels like a dysfunctional family to me. Or some sadistic kids in the playground saying you can watch their game but not join in.

From what I read, it sounds like for many theatre practitioners,  an antidote to that- immersive theatre -is so done to death already. (Even today in the Guardian, the director of Punch Drunk says that loads of people are bringing audiences into their shows, but they now want to take their shows into reality, confuse people about what’s real and what’s fiction and are researching a show in which they send people off on a three day adventure  http://www.guardian.co.uk/stage/2011/jun/08/crash-of-the-elysium-punchdrunk)

What can I say, I’m a late adopter. But, in the past two weeks I’ve seen three theatre pieces with an immersive element and finally realised that it wasn’t theatre that I didn’t like, just the Western, character based, fourth wall stuff. I had begun to get an inkling of this anyway, when I went to see the writer/director Tim Crouch speak last year and nearly cheered when he said he didn’t like to see actors acting.  Also, when writing my first one person spoken word show, I was determined to use stand up comedy conventions so that I wouldn’t have to suddenly erect the fourth wall that seems to be what many poets build when they start “doing” theatre.

However, now, having seen three (as it happens all Yorkshire based) practitioners immersive pieces, I am remembering something I knew all along but had forgotten. Sham’s Reykjavik-http://www.shams.org.uk/productions/new-work–  (I caught it at ARC, Stockton which has become a hot bed of interesting theatre experiences) saw us dress up in boiler suits and goggles and head off to a gauzey white set, on a tour of the character J’s memories of a doomed relationship. We were guided through Reykjavik, Paris, a disco, a hot tub and his splintering emotions. I am ever so suggestible- and when something like this is done as well as it was, I felt like I really, fully had been on that poetic, ice coated journey. I loved it! Then, Northern Stage in Newcastle transformed itself into a “Theatre Brothel”  where you could were directed to particular pieces depending on your answers to a questionnaire. I cheated because I knew I wanted to see “Tea is An Evening Meal” by Sheffield based creative Faye Draper (http://www.northernstages.co.uk/programme/tea-is-an-evening-meal) which I’d liked the sound of. Sure enough, we were treated to a sophisticated, sharp analysis of the power and status and regional differences conveyed by domestic set ups like meals and tea drinking- but all in the form of being guests having a cuppa at the house of a warm and chatty host. Then, last night I went to ARC Stockton’s Scratch Night and, there was another immersive piece. At a very early stage of development- but Ellie Harrison’s (http://ellieharrison.org/) exploration of grief by means of getting three audience members at a time to be trained in elephant grief assuaging techniques (site generic to hotels which will become the elephant therapy centres)- is going to be a light touch, but I think, really powerful way of looking at an emotion that society is still a bit crap at dealing with.

Crucially, in all these experiences, the performers really, actually see you the audience- you don’t have to disappear. Your body gets to take part in the experience too- and for me, that’s maybe the thing that means those pieces can really connect up the disparate parts of me. Brain, heart, body all get involved and make my feelings so much stronger.

I tend to still need a massive Invitation to go to things like this though. I went to the ARC things because I’m a member of their professional development programme- so they were free. And I was invited to Theatre Brothel as a press night person. If I’d seen an advert for “Immersive theatre piece in a disused ironworks” or something, I probably wouldn’t have gone, because I wouldn’t have read it as an Invitation for me. Just as I don’t read a theatre company assuming that I’m familiar and happy with all the usual conventions of theatre as an invitation to suspend my belief.  I’ve performed in theatre shows (and particularly enjoyed being involved in two promenade pieces- Changing Ways by Major Road Theatre Company way back in 1988 and Fuente Ovejuna which was directed at my University by the bloke who now produces the Electric Proms for the BBC) but there was always a very clear Invitation then to participate.  I know I’m strange, but I bet there’s loads more potential theatre goers like me who just need a bigger Invite (Sort of “You- yes you who think theatre’s shit but quite like Laser Quest and Coronation Street- you might enjoy this as a visceral experience honest, and we don’t like pretending either.”)

In fact, the last time before that that I remember another clear invitation to participate was from the Leeds based Blast Theory in 1998. (http://www.blasttheory.co.uk/bt/work_kidnap.html). You could enter into a lottery to be kidnapped. How cool! I thought. They wouldn’t tell you if you’d won, you’d just get taken off to a filmed room for 24 hours. Unfortunately the day of the potential kidnap co incided with the day of my driving test. I had to tell my instructor (but I didn’t mention it to the examiner), not to worry if I got taken off by some people in masks and bundled into a car. I was quite disappointed when they didn’t come for me. Though I did pass my test.

This has all set cogs whirring for me about how to use that particular element of theatre in performance poetry. Still keeping intimate with an audience, and getting their bodies and imaginations more actively involved. The theatre world might have been doing that for years (though it seems, only recently have these more experimental practices begun to enter mainstream venues), but for poets it would be an innovation.  A respectful kidnap of an audience if you will.