Wednesday, September 29, 2010


Attentiveness is a kind of escapism. Not a transcendent relief from the realities of life, but an emergency exit that leads us straight to the beating heart of those realities. Here, in this last minute, one final hard-on. The then Oxford Stage Company produces Sarah Kane’s Cleansed. On the night I see it, in the scene where Grace and her dead brother Graham make love, Garry Collins, the actor playing Graham, takes his clothes off and has an erection. In the midst of all this more-or-less honed performance, a moment of theatre: unsimulated, unironic, the clearest conceivable signal of desire. An escape into the real. // Thanks for being here this evening. Theatre, like the future, streams towards us, endlessly replenished. And here we all are, in a room named after that promise, and the deepest, most culturally urgent question that we face in facing each other in this moment is not, What do we want?, but Can we want? Can we want enough? Can we dare to trust the desire behind the desire? We breathe together through these final moments. My blood speaks to your blood. The dog is ticking.

Monday, September 27, 2010


“Theatre can’t change the world,” wrote Michael Billington, approvingly, about My Name is Rachel Corrie, and when it went to the West End, the producers stuck that review up outside the theatre. My habitual answer to this question still feels reliable. Can theatre change the world? We don’t know. Not all the results are in yet. We haven’t made all the theatre. We’ve barely begun to make the theatre that dares to believe that change is possible. Meanwhile the evidence coming the other way is that within two generations, within the scope of current living memory, the world will change again both in and out of relation to our imaginative projections of that change. To have any role to play, theatre must at least respond to and help us live that change. What that means in practice will also change, though it will only arise from a constant dedication to theatre as a distinctive practice, an analogue practice in a culture with an increasingly fragile dependence on the digital. But for theatre not merely to respond to change but to lead and shape it, as well it might, is a challenge to our capacity to want that change, and to testify to that desire.

Sunday, September 26, 2010


We encourage a profound level of attentiveness; we hold open the space of desire, we induce an intrepid wanting, in the knowledge that all desire when examined reveals itself as the desire for change. And then we stop, too soon. On purpose. Before the picture is clear, before the argument is clinched, before the perfect cadence is resolved, we stop. The most radical gift we can give our audience, and ourselves, is incompleteness. This is the point at which the promenade performance begins in earnest, where the imperative to participate is at its most irresistible: after the show has ended and the audience has dispersed. The onus to complete the work is on them. Isn’t that how we describe what we value in theatre? That it stays with us, that its power is lingering. That it alters our lived experience for some time after, or makes an indelible change. The theatre maker is the one who renders the frame through which the outside world is viewed in the aftermath of the encounter. (And how much more true this would be, incidentally, when the piece never ends, but the audience leaves only when they’re ready to re-enter the world.)

Saturday, September 25, 2010


In Where You Stand I nick a bit from Sara Ahmed’s brilliant book Queer Phenomenology, in which she notes, not at all in the context of theatre, that the ‘rect’ in ‘direction’ is the same as the ‘rect’ in ‘correct’ and ‘rectitude’ and for that matter ‘rectangle’. It’s all about straightness. As a director, it would seem to follow, my role is about keeping everything straight. Orderly and tidy and straight and narrow. It doesn’t seem to fit me at all. I mentioned this to Jonny, about the ‘rect’ in ‘director’, and he said, yes but don’t forget it’s also the ‘rect’ in ‘erection’. This would seem to conjure an image in which as a director I’m the conductor not just of chaos but of a chorus line of cocks. I hope it’s not as actually phallocentric as that but once I have your attention I do quite want to shape, or at least help to hold open, your experience of desire. I recall Natalie Abrahami’s statement regarding her anxiety about nudity on stage: isn’t it distracting to spend all evening watching someone’s genitals? My answer: not if those genitals are the most beautiful thing on stage. Desire is always political. Want something. Want something.

Thursday, September 23, 2010


Why do we only ever hear about the loftiest aspirations of theatre organizations when they find themselves faced with closure? Why does it take a crisis to make us reach beyond the language of marketing for a kind of diction that breathes civic oxygen? Signal to Noise was born into, and in opposition to, a British theatre culture that was too cool for political ardour, too in love with its cynicism to actually dare to want something. We instinctively understood what Zizek now reminds us: that a thrall to irony signals not a diminution of feeling, but a fear of the vertiginous depth and cultural urgency of that feeling; an unwillingness to face up to the terror of wanting. Back in the day we talked about sincerity, not realizing that Blair and Bush would attempt to legitimise their psychotic criminality in exactly those terms. So now we talk about desire, about wanting desire, trusting it, the thing behind the thing. When irony is complacent and cowardly, and sincerity is toxic, our want, our naked fessed-up want, is a tender, humane refusal of both. Theatre, then, because we need a public place where we can deeply care about what we want.

Sunday, September 19, 2010

One of the most interesting provocations of recent times was Marina Abramovic’s insistence at her curated live art show at last year’s Manchester International Festival that the audience should undergo a period of ‘initiation’ (her word) before they were admitted to the gallery. One might well feel anxious about the liminoid insularity this could bestow on the work, but it’s certainly true that we arrive for most theatrical encounters underequipped for their fullest demands: and when I say ‘we’ I mean makers and actors as well as audiences. I want theatre to promote attentiveness, because nothing else currently does, and the quality of political thought and cultural analysis that we’re capable of is enfeebled as a consequence. Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan, in the introduction to their collection of interviews with poets, Don’t Start Me Talking, say this, which I love: “Attention is a pure good. What brings states of high attention, is successful as art without further ado.” I’d rather compel people’s attentiveness through irresistible seduction than through bootcamp crash-course workshops in meditation or whatever, but it’s all good.

Thursday, September 16, 2010


It is, to be specific, 10.15pm Friday 21st May as I write these words. I’m in a different hotel room further downtown and I can barely hear the signals of central Manchester on a Friday evening above the noise of the aircon. Both the ice machines in the hotel are broken so I’m drinking warm diet Coke. It’s diet Coke because exactly a year ago in yet another hotel in Manchester I did the home test that revealed that I had become diabetic. All this is instantly, specifically, the case. I’ve just done the last performance of a new piece called Where You Stand which is partly made out of a collaborative blog. Working in that way reflects the question that burns most ardently for the moment. How can the work I make speak in high fidelity to the complexity of how we now live and the almost overwhelming challenge to work towards living better, in a way that feels less violent, less exploitative, more equitable, more joyfully queer? For the last couple of years I’ve had three tenets in mind, that I try to make every piece of work conform to. I thought I’d have improved on them by now, but I haven’t. I’ll finish up by talking about those.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010


If I’m arguing for a return to the notion that theatre is not just an experience you have but a place you go to congregate with others and share that experience, we had better for a moment consider the site-specific. This is a category of work that like so many others is regrettably hidebound by our continuing failure to distinguish form from content. Which is to say that our excited focus has been on the site. Partly this is media-driven – do me a Titus Andronicus in a bus station and you can have a photo across three columns. A previously unused site will seem to equal novelty, even if what’s placed there is no more than an arrangement of reupholstered deckchairs on the same old Titanic. What’s deep and culturally urgent about the site-specific is not the site but the specific, which theatre has always struggled with. Prefabricated theatre is always conceived in a blur of generalities. To be specific is to be responsive not just to the site of the work but to its audience, to its social context, to its cultural moment, to the weather. Theatre is made here and now specifically between us, and whatever is not is not worthy of the name.

Friday, September 10, 2010

On the whole I haven’t wanted, in considering the future, to pay much attention to the kind of trends that trendspotters spot: but in the light of these thoughts about the structuring of theatre, I’m interested to recall that after Web 2.0, the flowering of user-generated content, we’re promised, by some, the return of expertise, of those who can reliably help us navigate the multiplicities. To minimise the power differential between actor and audience, to rethink the job of the director, to disperse authority, is not to downplay the importance of skill, craft, elegance and rigour in all of those roles; on the contrary, it’s to lean harder on those qualities. To be an actor, to be a maker, should be an extraordinary way of life, one that we shouldn’t be afraid to call a vocation. It’s because I care so much about the experience of the audience and the potential of theatre to incite radical change that I want to say: Fuck your feedback forms; fuck your Twitter reviews; fuck your snarky comments on the Guardian blog. I’m working in theatre pretty much every waking minute, I work hard and I want excellence and we are specialists and this is not trivial.

Wednesday, September 8, 2010


24-hour rolling theatre is not a new idea, but as far as I know it’s not been tried for any sustained period. The closest conceptual relation in recent years has probably been Brian Eno’s Civic Recovery Centre, which anyway has only been fleetingly realised, but the presence of actors in the model I’m describing seems to me crucial. Practical obstacles abound so if we have to treat this merely as a thought experiment then, OK, fine, whatever. But see what this does? Everything is improvised, or prepared in the same space that it’s shown and in the same full view. The freighted prestige of the actor within the apparatus of the theatre production is destroyed; the role of the director changes, the role of the writer, the designer, the musician, is folded into the live unit. Nobody mistakes this theatre for a kind of literature. Our current marketing apparatus becomes sublimely redundant. The relationship of the person in the street is not with the individual show, but with theatre itself as a special register of activity, one which simply involves an attentive encounter with others, in a place that’s designed specifically to nurture it.

Saturday, September 4, 2010


In this dream there is a building to which you have free, unticketed access, day and night. At the heart of this building is a room, where you can sit, or stand, or lie, for as long as you want, in the company of others, or sometimes, it might so happen, on your own. This room also contains one or more actors. That’s the word we use to describe them. They’re not there to perform. They’re there simply to act, to act on behalf of the others who are gathered there, to make actions, to commit themselves to various kinds of activity. You might pop in for ten minutes on your lunchbreak and watch two men in blindfolds slowdancing. You might pop in for an hour after work instead of going to the gym, and watch five people build a model of Mumbai out of donated car parts. On the evening after your cat dies you might stay up all night with a woman you’ve never met before listening as she tells you a seemingly endless story about an old man who steals a motorbike and rides across the desert. You might spend twenty-one minutes thirty seconds watching a stranger stand naked in the light, and stop worrying about your unpayable gas bill.

Thursday, September 2, 2010


Two quotations that circle around my head. Aaron Sorkin gives President Bartlet in The West Wing a sort of catchphrase that should be written in the window of every theatre in town. He says: “Decisions are made by those who show up.” Audiences need to know this. Going to the theatre should feel like voting, only not useless in 97% of locations. And then there’s a song by Kate Bush called ‘Love and Anger’ where she sings: “We’re building the house of the future together / What would we do without you?” // I know not everyone feels, perhaps not everyone ever could feel, as I do, that theatre has saved my life: which is to say, it has made it possible for me to inhabit, intermittently but for real, a life infinitely more fit for living than the parallel one that propels me through the out-of-order automatic doors at Morrisons on a Sunday afternoon. Perhaps not everyone can feel that. But couldn’t going to the theatre become a more vibrantly elective act? A more affirmative kind of commitment? An act of deeply, urgently wanting, desiring, the thing behind the thing?