Sunday, February 21, 2010

It wasn't Meditative

it was boring. You may attempt to reconcile these two very different emotions in an attempt to not appear a philistine, but I work in theatre and hold education and experience in this field and can confidently and helpfully state that Peter Brook's "11&12" at the Barbican was two of the most boring hours of my life. (and do you know how many hours I've spent in departure lounges?)

Helpfully? (you ask, eyebrow slightly raised) Yes, I'm helping you. I can think deep thoughts. Abysmally so. As a postgraduate I spend all day every day studying and developing ridiculously heavy theories, then rescinding them in recognition of their post-colonial viewpoints or Utopian ideologies. I have long-winded and delightfully deconstructivist discussions with my professors on a regular basis--debates which leave me red-cheeked and wild-eyed and feeling vaguely as though I've torn out a page of my practical knowledge and replaced it with excitingly useless philosophical nonsense. (a degree in philosophy and 75p can buy you a tiger loaf at Tesco. mmm) To the point--it's my job right now to think about, analyze, engage critically with, and discuss the ethics of everything that goes into theatrical production.

And I say it's boring. Therefore, you too can admit that you found it boring, and let that off your chest. There was nothing deeper for you to get, nothing you should be embarrassed for missing or not appreciating. It was dull, and even the woman across the aisle with the opera glass and the pensive frown thought so.

Its this insistence upon not admitting to oneself (I wasn't bored, I was entranced by the tone and smooth line delivery. no no, I must be smarter and more worldly than you because I was distinctly Not bored.) and one's friends that one was bored of his or her skull by a piece of theatre that allows bad theatre to continue to be made. I'm not suggesting we need every show to have explosions or song-and-dance numbers, but there is no excuse for boring theatre. Theatre, by definition, exists primarily (and in most cases, solely) to Entertain. If it is dull, it is not entertaining. Therefore it fails.

At my school we produce heaps of boring theatre. We justify making it by calling our pieces "artistic explorations" or "studies of the performer's inner struggle." but on the inside we all know (well, maybe not the performers themselves, who continue to insist upon doing these sorts of things) that it's just pointless navel-gazing that leads even the most pretentious audience member to crave the solitaire app on his phone. Performance is narcissism--if you are dating an actor you may want to keep that in mind next time you find yourself feeling small. While all humans have to some extent a "look at me!" need, most of us don't need 500 people 6 nights a week to do so to satiate it. (oof, sorry, bit of a tangent there.)

The biggest problem with making boring theatre, though, is that it is offensive. (jigga-wha?) It is not hugely difficult to make interesting theatre, but it is really, really easy to make it boring. If the eyelids of half the audience are drooping it shows you didn't put an ounce of effort into your piece--not just into writing it, but staging it so that it is visually and aurally engaging. This is doubly true for ethnically sensitive pieces, where you're making a show about a culture you aren't a member of and you're fairly confident your audience won't be. Making a show about the Other that is painfully dull tells the audience that you don't quite give enough of a shit about them to make your piece watchable. Which is a dual shame--one because it makes you look like just another arrogant Westerner, and two because you've just passed up an opportunity to give your audience some culture.

Yep--I wish to redefine the "cultural experience" right here, if you don't mind. If a night of culture is so dull, incomprehensible, or simply unwatchable that most of the audience exit the gallery thinking only "damn I want my money back" they have not had a cultural experience. They didn't get your point or moral and they didn't pay attention to your history lesson or showcase. They did not leave with more information, tolerance, social awareness, or interest than when they came in. You have not cultured them in any way.

So. I may appear a bit jaded, but honestly, this is my area of study--audience impact. I want my audience to want to be there to see my piece. I want them to take something away from it that isn't just boredom or a new appreciation for the glowing hands on their watches. I want the show to not need big-name actors in order to draw a crowd and I want theatre to go back to its roots--its real roots. Entertainment. Fun. Contrary to Dryden's views, I do not believe theatre's first obligation is to educate. No one who makes theatre is qualified to teach, and any attempt to do so by a theatre practitioner is a misguided effort at best, a dangerous and unethical display at worst. Most theatre types don't know if what they're presenting is ethnically or historically accurate, and really don't care either way. Theatre's first obligation is to entertain, but if someone is likely to learn something from it (Because it's interesting to watch) what you present needs to be right.

When I sat down to watch "11&12" the first thing I saw was a sparsely-decorated stage, yellow streaks under a big red blanket and a collection of carved tree trunks on dollies. Not a good start. While the play does take place in Mali, recreating a desert wasteland--even an abstract one--is not a good idea. The stage was eventually shown to be covered in sand. Most people in Mali do not live in the Sahara, and the piece takes place in the south-central Mopti region, which has a decent agricultural base. (e.g. your average villager does not desperately seek shade under petrified trees as the wind whips sand into his weathered face.) Yes the nation is poor, but presenting this barren landscape sets me as an audience member up for a story of people clinging to life in spite of everything--not a babbling, meandering discourse on religion. At one point a character is shown riding a boat down a the desert. Right. As it is, the sparse, monochrome set does nothing to liven up the staging used--mostly people sitting around--and the unchanging amber wash likewise encourages the eyes to look elsewhere--but there's nothing else to see.

Most audience members chose to either look at the inside of their eyelids or at each other (one particularly meditative audience member to my left was so entranced by the play that he began to snore lightly) but not in a judgmental, "oh look at the world I live in, I should feel grateful that I do not face persecution for my religious beliefs." way, but in more of a "honey, that haircut really doesn't fit your face" manner. I've studied pieces which intentionally toy with audience attention and practical applications of boredom and I can confidently say this was not one of them.

The one active scene in the show is a depiction of violence. Now, in a show about French colonialism and interference in Islam and the wave of massacres linked to this instance you'd assume they'd have plenty to work with of oppression and torture, but the one display is, you guessed it, villager infighting. Great. Way to encourage the audience to empathize with the underdog. Colonial and modern France give you so much fodder--religious intolerance comes to mind--and yet in your piece they come out smelling like a bed of roses. Sheez--the French aren't even in the audience to defend themselves! You could say Anything! But no, instead we're treated to a view of anger within an oppressed community, just like the BBC chose to show the day after Haiti's catastrophic earthquake, reinforcing the subtle notion the West likes to tell itself--these people need us to come and save them, even from themselves.

Nanny-stating aside, scenographic probing aside, the staging was dull, the accents were all over the map, the costuming could have been less beige but I honestly haven't studied early 20th century Malian fashion so I can't reasonably comment, the music was interesting and well performed but had nothing to do with the time, place, or people, and the colourblind casting was nice but honestly why did you give the only line including the phrase "us black people" to the only white guy on stage? Come on. That's tacky.

Actually, that really about sums up my whole experience. I've been to worse theatre, certainly, but rarely by people as well-esteemed. Many of my classmates attempted to justify the piece's choices by quoting this and that theory about how by being dull and ethically dubious it provoked thought, research and argument, but I'd argue against that--most audience members don't watch theatre like theatre workers. They take it for what they see, and what they saw was dull.

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