Theatre is now.
It is of now and therefore, inevitably about now. That is the most abiding characteristic of the form for me. ‘Now’ is it’s it-ness. It happens now, in front of you and is gone forever. Forms of recording drama have evolved mighty quickly into other forms in their own right. Theatre remains. Now only. A deliberate live act, witnessed by an audience. And the audience is vital too, actually – because the theatre bear does not shit in the woods unless it is being watched. Rehearsals are not performances and performances are only cancelled when no-one turns up to watch them. If someone turns up the show must go on.
The definition of theatre’s now-ness gets increasingly complicated and elusive the more an attempt is made. Because it is NOW but it is a special kind of now. It is a now that has been talked about, planned and discussed. Designed and lit. A now that has been rehearsed. A now that also includes the past and is in dialogue with the past; a now that is already a then and, a now that was in some way made then. A sort of Meta-Now … Today I hope to talk about the construction and creation of that Like Wow Meta-Now we know and love so much. There are three key parts to it for me and therefore 3 parts to this speech.
There’s the now we are in. Then there’s the personal and ultimately there is the Universal, the cultural river that streams and burbles and eddies around us. To my mind it is the careful and deliberate offsetting, tuning and marshaling of those three massive forces that makes the Theatre space resonate with thrilling insights, emotions and shimmerings.
For Peter Brook – famously – Theatre was best encapsulated in the definition: The Empty Space. But I don’t think it is an empty space in the same way I don’t think that an acoustic guitar shoved full of clothes suddenly becomes a suitcase. What I am saying is, there is more going on than emptiness, even in his elegant and simple definition at the beginning of the book because there is watching and there is playing and there are associations immediately and those associations and wonderings, those images conjured, can be ordered and tweaked and made to RESONATE.
Theatre is a specific space certainly, but it is a resonating one, like the body of a beautiful instrument. Resonating as a present participle to keep it in the here and now AND as an adjective to keep us imagining what that does to the meaning of space.
Resonating is not echoing which is a repetition and a diminishing. Likewise, it is not amplification. Both these are too literal. Resonating is the orderly harnessing of tones, semi-tones, harmonics and vibrations. It is the deliberate structuring of those things to make a chosen sound. Resonance involves harmony and dissonance; it involves layers of input that are sometimes contradictory, conflicting. It involves disjunction and diminishing. It involves problems, all lined up to vibrate together into one unified heavenly swell.
It is a singularly human endeavour.
As you can tell, I am no musically trained sound theoretician, these are my terms and so I am defining them for us now. Resonance in the context of theatre, points to deliberately tuning the layers of material at your disposal. It involves playing with the literal. It demands we remember there is brown in shadows, purple in clouds, sadness in joy … Practically then, what have you got at your disposal? The script. The cast. The setting. The clothes. The lighting. The sound. The tempo. The venue. The audience, your own understanding of the associations and cultural vibration of the people who will come. Of the material being put on stage, all this can be delicately separated out and each can be attended to deliberately or intuitively or both to create a cascading arpeggio of ideas and emotions.
It is all there for you to tune and retune to the times and the space in which you live. And most importantly and inescapably it will happen. Here, now. It won’t happen there, then because that was a different production. And it won’t happen again unless it’s a huge success, and even then – you see – it won’t happen again, because what will be happening again will be the return season of a success. And that’s a very different audience mindset. And might involve a cast change. And once more unto the breach you will go for that careful process of structuring and tuning the show’s particular resonance…
And this may all seem like the long way round to restating the bleeding obvious but it is obvious and for that reason, often ignored. And when ignored the evils of generalisation and audience expectation get their miserly grip on the delicate bud of your priceless expression. Generalisation often starts with hat-tipping to the gooder, older days. The show someone I knew saw when. The days when God existed and authority could be called upon. Audience expectation is then the passive consumption of the meaning of the value of the greatness of the holy endeavour we are advised by people who know better to call art. BUT the holy art is not what we are here to do. We are here to put on a show. Now. Why is passive consumption a problem you ask? Because it is not in confrontation with time. It is not engaged with things as they are happening now. It is outside of the now. When I lose touch with my now-ness I lose touch with my openness, my sense of danger and adventure.
So it is when the audience can feel that fabulous, astringent tension in the air that what they are witnessing is happening now, and only now – that is when they are open to difference and to change. That is when you get them and some of them – like we gathered theatre saddies here today – for ever.
I’ve just touched on something to do with audience and critics that I want to round out but not dwell on. What – apart from Museum generalisings on how theatre used to be when it was better, apart from holy art-fartings, what other passive (aggressive) audience/critical techniques must we all be mindful of? Blame. It was the sets fault. It was the sound. It was this and that. Blame is a way of not thinking further about the choices made, because remember, even the things that defeat us as theatre makers (and they are there in every show) those things that we just have to let go on stage even though we are not happy with them – even those orphans are our children and we must take responsibility for them as artistic choices and so I implore the audience to read all choices as deliberate and therefore whether you like them or not is less relevant, than what happens to you when you engage with them. Criticism that springs from there may well be harsh but will contain the seeds for the theatre-maker’s growth by helping them to refine their sense of tuning, structure and resonance. Surely this is in the interests of us all?
The hardest audience burden of all to tolerate in myself as an audience member, or from the audiences I have been involved in playing to, and it is related to the grumpy blaming technique – is the sitting back and waiting to be fed. This sort of blobby ‘tell me a story while I chew my cud’ has left me wondering if seats should be removed from theatres altogether. We have a responsibility to our audience BUT they in turn have a responsibility to the medium. Sit up and engage. It’s not feeding time, its haranguing, coaxing, wooing time.
Get – as John McCallum said a couple of Parsons ago – Theatre-fucked. You paid the money, you may as well get the disease.
While we are out here in sort of audience responsibility/critical responsibility land … there are ways of shitting on the work people do that bypass the critical faculty by appealing to the secretive, the gossipy and the vengeful in us all. Who does not know that life is unfair? Who does not know how to make it better, fairer? Who does not seek the company of the like-minded? Who does not thrill to that moment when you and your like-minded comrades are bought together behind your hand with a raise of the eye-brow and a knowing slight nod? Who does not like salacious gossip and tales of our fellows (particularly the non-like minded) in extremis? Who does not feel a shiver of guilty pleasure when someone you are envious of falls flat on their face? And, who does not know that the people they are envious of are actually pompous wankers who deserve to be pilloried? Who doesn’t thrill at the gap that those wankers may make if defeated and that you or – second best – one of your secret-winking-comrades may fill? This is not earth-shattering news on the desolate state of the human soul. This is life as we know it.
And life as we know it, Gossip, is not the pith of cultural dialogue. The obvious is not the basis for a challenging, healthy cultural conversation – it is the basis for a viper’s nest, for the shoring up of power bases, the shutting of doors and the battening down of hatches. Criticism, to be so called, must put itself on the line. Criticism must be the first to take the steps towards the work. It must lead the way. In times when work is difficult and inexplicable criticism needs to broker the peace between the audience and the practitioners. Of course one’s own anger, bitterness and regret at having not achieved what one hoped for in life – and WHO does not feel that, with each day sliding away into oblivion? Of course it is an awesome thirst to quench but slaking it in negativity is a poison chalice.
To do any kind of justice to the role of the audience and more publicly the role of criticism is beyond my remit today and probably my ability in actual fact, but it is an important element in the now-ness of theatre because it is one of the important records of how that piece of theatre took place right then. In that time, and so needs to be kept alive in our minds.
I have attempted to define my terms. Theatre happens now and it happens in more than an empty space, hence the resonating space. That space will be more or less deliberately tuned by the many choices made by the theatre practitioners. Those choices – that tuning – communicates the real meaning of the experience. Theatre is not here to put on plays therefore, it is rather that plays are one (very effective and significant) contribution to the putting on of theatre.
Imagine a production of The Cherry Orchard. Is there any way known to man that those productions just imagined would be the same? Can there be a correct production of the Cherry Orchard? Did anyone try and imagine the correct production of the Cherry Orchard or their own production of the Cherry Orchard? If there were a correct production, who could you cast? Olga Knipper? The great Stanislavski himself? Would it be all Edwardian Jackets with fly-away collars and corseted ladies? Were the four scenes most authentically conveyed in realistic almost cinematic detail, or were they painted backdrops from the period? Where was the pesky sideboard of which Gaev speaks so extensively? Dark brown wood? Was there a television on it? Running water in the taps? Champagne in the bottles?
The point being? The whole thing is up for grabs. There is no correct Orchard. No perfectly formed rendering of the play. So, we have a script and we work towards a production. All the answers to all the questions which face us as we set out on the near impossible task of bringing this world alive, now, for us, will be predicated in one way or another on how to make this play resonate for our audience here, now. In this space. The themes will shape themselves, the meaning will evolve. The cart must not be put before the horse. The theatre as it exists now will tell us how to do the play, and we will find the theatre in the play only by doing it this way. The theatre will come first, the play second.
Now this is contentious for writers brought up on the erroneous notion that their words are sacred and their musings finite. And it is right at this very important crossroads (the crossroad of the sacred and the profane, form and content, theory and practice) – that ‘literature’ – which is all well and good in the book club and the streamlined curriculum designed to eradicate a love for the magnificence of great writing – does not count for much in theatre. We all know good acting and bad acting is a matter of taste and a matter of time. There is no hard and fast definition even from theatre to theatre let alone country to country let alone time to time. The same implacable criteria applies to set design, to lighting and sound and costumes. And of course the same applies to directing and unsurprisingly that is how best to assess writing for the theatre. It is of now – if it speaks to now, it is good and, if it muffles, confounds and/or distorts now it is not. What is remarkable about Hamlet, what is remarkable about The Cherry Orchard – and there are many great, great plays – what is remarkable about them all, is that they can be re-tuned to now and make sense, make tunes, make us hear and feel NOW.
They may well fit the bill for literature status but that is quite separate from their theatrical value. When you set out as a writer to write literature you’ll be hard-pressed to write a play. Just set out to write a play, then put it on – if it works it’ll be nothing like you imagined.
My guess is that everyone here has a very personal relationship to theatre. Because you have, as we’ve been talking about – now – the immediate, the world as it is, here now. US. Alive. But you also have yourself. Your on-going relationship to your past, your self, your time on this planet. This is the unstoppable force and the immovable object. The rock and the hard place between which we all exist. When you come into the theatre, be it as audience or into the rehearsal room as theatre-maker you bring all your you-ness with you and that is the next piece of the puzzle.
Personally? Theatre saved my life, seriously it changed and remade my life and not once but twice. So far.
I left school in 1983. They were still caning boys in those days, Hawke and Keating had only just got in and Australia was still very much a prawn and Barbie type of boondock. Engagement with the region extended to New Zealand as the nearest member of the Commonwealth. 1983. BUT my tale takes place seven years prior to that … In the deep, dark mists of 1976. I was ten. The sun was about to set once and for all on her Maj courtesy of Cook, Matlock, Rotten and Jones. We privileged white Australians still in the thrall of ideas and ideals that would seem as alien now as the cane and the sport mad school. Rugger, cricket or poofter being the extent of the choice in those heady days. To be honest Poofter chose me because I would have loved to play cricket for Australia except I never got taught the rules. It was assumed that knowledge was inherited like our rights and our privileges. Poofter also chose me because my dad was an avid subscriber to what was then the Nimrod theatre company. I assume that means my dad was a poofter. Who knows? Either way, I had been exposed to theatre and the rules made sense. So, there I am at what could only be characterized as a Dickensian institution for the most important citizens in our democracy. White. And because it’s a laugh after the game they do a school play and because I fall into the category of Poofter I sign up for it. Smiling from ear to ear.
I’m not telling this right. I was a ten-year-old boy at a school in the middle of nowhere. It was dark by the time the train arrived there. I was surrounded by boys, peers I didn’t really understand, and divisions and structures I didn’t really get. And there was a school play. A place I understood. An ambition I could genuinely and realistically harbor. A safe haven. The play chosen was The Bushrangers. I think the title contains the plot, setting and characters in its entirety. I was cast as one of the bushranger gang and was also understudy to the very good front-rower playing Macabe. A major role. Anyway this is me. This is my time, this is my thing. At last, something I can love in this damned, incomprehensible place. Unfortunately none of the staff took it at all seriously so they could only rustle up costumes and props for the main gang members. It hit home hard, I was filler. An extra. The understudies were going to go on in their casuals. I was heartbroken. This was supposed to be my chance to contribute to the life of the school. Some boys do this, some do that. This was meant to be my shot at my that. A week before the opening (and closing) night a package arrived for me (packages were exciting at the best of times): A box with my father’s familiar illegible scrawl on the top.
Inside was a full-scale replica of a flintlock pistol. You could pull back the hammer and shoot it. You still can. My boys play with it completely oblivious of the fact that it arrived in my hands like a life buoy before I drowned. A message from home that said we think what you are doing is important.
I never got to play Macabe but I had the best fucking prop in the whole show. I made sure I was in every school play from that day onward and my life was never the same again.
Probably twenty years later (now I think about it almost to the day) I was at a small gathering of friends. We all had something to do with theatre or film but mostly it was theatre wannabes. At the time I was working in the film industry doing continuity. I had started in editing and used the employment – three or four well-paid months work – to take time off to write or try and do things in the theatre. Independent shows, strange scrappy little sidelines. But more and more I was working in the film industry and further and further away from this heartland for me. It is as I look back now the moment when my connection and place in theatre was at its most threadbare. Worn thin with compromise and my own awkwardness. I was nearly giving it up. I was certainly talking like a disillusioned person – except this night. This night I engaged in a long and genuinely thrilling enthusiation about Turgenev’s A Month in the Country with the most beautiful, intelligent and engaging actress. She was working in film at the time but I knew she was a stage animal and it thrilled me just to talk about whatever it is that makes the stage such a particular place. And A Month in the Country. Before we parted that night we kissed. Six months later we were married in the Blue Mountains. My life has never been the same since.
Neither of those moments are about plays I love or shows I saw and love. I tell those stories now because personally you risk the things you love – (was that Jeanette Winterson?). A personal connection and relationship must be staked on the Now. Those stories are about theatre inside my life. Theatre as a place to be. A place that allows, liberates, frees and satisfies some thing inside me. Of course there has been that handful of shows that has affected my sense of theatre forever. Of course there are plays I read time and again. We all have those. They are all mostly different for all of us – thank God.
I want to place the ideas of theatre’s power for change and our personal connection to theatre in a broader conversation about culture. So lets start with a bit more about that Australia I grew up in. It really was a very different country. I think probably a different world. But there was at that time some incredibly exciting writing going on. Incredible playwrights who are I think linked by a project – shared explicitly or not – a project of getting The Australian Voice and Australian stories on stage. I think that project is done. In fact I think the follow on project is so far advanced I really am talking about something long gone. The current project which is well into it’s third decade is Australian Theatre not Australian Plays (necessarily) but Australian Theatre. Personally I date its lucid inception in my life, from Neil Armfield’s production of Hamlet with Richard Roxburgh as the Dane. That was when I learnt the newness, the specificity, the immediacy and the lifeblood of theatre. It taught me how to adapt the classics to our time and place, and it taught me that the classics were for us to play with. That we had as much right to them as anybody else. It has, as I remember it now all the qualities that I would associate with the Australian theatrical voice. It was spare, but the imagery burnt into you. It was naughty, dangerous, disruptive. The emotional weight of the play took you by surprise because it was played lightly, ironically with abandon.
That’s my personal mark in the sand, of course time is nothing like history, time is hazy and the development lines between Nimrod and Belvoir alone are so blurry that to say definitively something happened on the 9th of May in the year of our Lord such and such is a nonsense. But a personal relationship brings a history and in my history that is the moment Australian Theatre changed emphasis. And the meaning of being an Australian at the theatre was allowed to be more than just an investigation into what made us unique and interesting, but telescoped out into what made us particular in the scheme of all things human. In the big culture that throbs and grinds all around us before we are born and long after we are dead …
Inevitably historicization in that way, seems to infer progress and the progress-narrative characterises the past as essentially a step towards the better present. It always does, but it isn’t like that, it is waves of change and inquiry that swirl together like a beautiful ice cream – you know that ice cream with surrounding bulk of vanilla and the burnt brown veins of delicious caramel? Every generation has their own particular caramelly concentration that it is attracted to but it is the whole-ness of culture that is the remarkable organism that binds us and holds us together. Madness in this ice-cream metaphor might be seen as too much of the caramel intensity of one’s now-ness and not enough of the softening, binding all-embracing ice cream of the wider, older culture. The human experience.
I suppose it is here between the personal and the broader cultural bit that I can best take the chance to acknowledge Philip Parsons who I never met but to thank him and remember him for helping to build a present now past that is genuinely receptive to this present and the future. A past that has enough gravity and clarity of purpose to continue to give meaning to our endeavours, even those or perhaps particularly those that are contradictory and disruptive. It is an honour to speak at this forum in his name.
So, human culture …
Culture, if we set aside for now inherited genetic patterns – the impulses in bees that lead to hives and Ants that lead to nests. Culture is a uniquely human endeavour because it is the intersection of our Nowness – because all life is bounded by the tyranny of time and space. You can only be here when you are here and it can only be now – Culture is formed at the intersection of our now-ness. Our personal inner life history, memories, associations and our shared collective knowledge including the humiliating knowledge that we might be ignorant of something – and that’s important – self-awareness is a huge engine of creation as is ignorance.
Culture is the intersection of those things with the genetic patterns we inherit. Let me reframe that – those patterns are the paper on which these interactions are writ if you like. And these interactions between the self and the world; the world as past and the world as present – are the way culture is made and makes who we are. It takes place in language and writing. It takes place in gesture and encounter. The mushiest, most electrifying bit of it takes place in our eyes. The eyes are the window to the soul because the soul of humanity is Culture. How we interact with it and allow it to affect and change us in our singular finite life-time. The rest, to be brutal, is biology.
A pattern emerges; it’s called your identity.
To my mind, the most perfect expression of the conundrum and the bugger that is life can only be found/experienced/grasped collectively in the performing arts. Because they are subject to the very boundaries of life itself. Time and space. And theatre is always (at its best) charged with two simple conflicting themes – Identity and Death – which are probably two parts of the sentence that says: ‘Life’. Full stop.
So, for my money, theatre is the very wellspring of our Culture. It is bound by the rock and the hard place that forms the tiny crevice in which we live – time and space – and it summons identity out of nowhere until death (or completion) in a massive exhortating hymn to Life. The other art forms are hybrids, off-shoots and refinements, don’t get me wrong that is nothing to do with their invaluable contribution to this thing called humanity BUT if you want to be right there on the pulse that connects you right back to the beginning of thought. To the beginning of coordinated and defined thought and to that moment when consciousness flickers into being, socially, then theatre is the medium for you. People will say cave paintings. But they aren’t cave paintings, they are set designs. Those people back then crawled down into those deep, forbidding places perhaps with only a sputtering animal fat candle for light (but what great light that would be!). They crawled over creepy bugs and down narrow tiny spaces – they could barely breathe. They couldn’t turn back. And then they gathered there and in that tiny hopeless glow in that vast subterranean gloom, they drew a backdrop and told the story about the thing that was uppermost in their consciousness. Survival. Defeating death. Staying in the light a bit longer. Staying together just one more year, one more season at least. Please. And not someone else. Me. US. Now.
It’s hardly changed at all theatre. The content, mostly, but not the form. Empty space? No, no, no. Very full. Very attractive and singular. Very specific and finely tuned to the best embodiment of that yearning. It’s always been hard to get to the theatre. But even when it’s not worth it, it’s worth it. Because without it we are cut off from the source of our being. Really.
My inner smart arse (of which there is plenty) is saying what about sport? Sport is bound by time and space – often more explicitly than theatre. Sport brings people together and offers a communion, sport would be old, I would say at least as old as the cave theatres (I almost said cave paintings). So what about sport? Sport is of the day. It is of the light. The open space. It is super-immediate. It is about prowess and triumph. It too is a hymn to life but it does not grapple with death. It is not of the dark and of that terrible surrounding blankness that both defines and eradicates us. Now in this day of electrickery (bring back the sputtering animal fat candles I say). In this day and age you can choose to live in the light the whole time. But you will die and after being born it’s the next big thing. Pity not to wrestle with it. Maybe not …
As I say theatre is a commitment. It’s uncomfortable and creepy. And full of poofters.
Tamás Ascher who directed Uncle Vanya for Sydney Theatre Company in 2010 said that the stage must be a place of destiny. Now destiny is of course a dirty word in any small ‘l’ liberal democracy because it negates freedom of choice. Destiny is as old as the cave theatres and as hard to sell in the modern world. But destiny is important to the meaning of theatre and to its value. When someone close to you dies, their life quite suddenly has a distinct shape. In the context of their death, chance and randomness begin to take on the inevitable. And the meaning of their life can really only be read with any certainty in the light of that finite pattern. That is what it feels like when someone dies. Their life sets, not in stone but certainly into a narrative. And I think it does become stone over time. It is no mistake that those classic sculptors set their heroes and leaders in stone. The story can shift and move in life but not so much in legend.
I am not an actor or a stage manager so it is very rare for me to go back stage during a performance. In fact the first time in my adult memory was during the Sydney Theatre Company tour to New York of Hedda Gabler in 2006. It was fascinating for me for two significant reasons the first was to see through the gap in the flats the audience’s attention. They pour into this crucible of light through their eyes. Every face is alive. Every one is bearing witness to something that seems to be happening inside them as much as it is happening in front of them. Their attention does not interfere with the action on stage. It kind of embraces and inhabits it. The second insight I gained was into actors and to a lesser degree stage managers and stage hands. The zone just out of the crucible of light – what we call in the business off-stage – is a place unlike any other I have ever been privy too. The attention of the folk there is quite similar to that of the audience. They are half right here right now and half in some silent inner meditation.
The stage is a twilight zone between life and death. That is why the stage when it is in the right hands is literally a crack between this world and the next. It is inhabited by ghosts. Actors are half taken over, stage managers are like acolytes or officiaries at some strange wake cycling through eternity. The narrative has defined the world and the stage is a place of destiny.
This world and the next …? But we know. We have known since Darwin … We know there is no GOD. We know there is no after life. But something inside us yearns for that silent crucible that shimmers across time and talks of who we are and how we might be better or at least no longer worse. About how we can LIVE in this strange subterranean void.
There is a lot of talk in ethics about the difficulty of society and legislation keeping up with science. That’s very dry. The big bugger of an issue breathing down our necks as a species is the resolution of our spiritual yearnings with the Godless universe that we find ourselves in. God lent authority. God leant moral certitude God lent an understandably finite version of eternity. God had a beard and was light. There was a way. There was a truth. There was a narrative that closed. All this is gone for many of us and yet the evolutionary pressure inside us has not abated.
Language it is considered by many who know far more than me – gives a great and simple insight into how we ended up with Gods and spirits and ancestors. We name something. It is taken away. The word remains in the conversation. The idea remains in our minds. And so an absent thing has a presence in our lives. A very real, very functioning presence. In the beginning was the word.
That evolutionary drive that makes language possible, fills us with absence, indefinable fears and hopes and yearnings. Our memories of the dead. Our memories of the happy children we were or we knew next door. Our ability to see here now and remember what it was like. This is where Jacek Koman prayed futilely as Claudius. We are filled with absence. Spiritual beings in a godless universe. Only culture will soothe that ache. And never quite.
There’s a lot of talk in business and economics about creativity and the arts. This is important but like most things to do with money stops at the first solution. It is not creativity that is being sought so desperately. It is meaning. Money only works when it buys you what you want. And the fucker is what you want is never exactly what you thought and so it isn’t ever what you get.
Now there’s one loose end I need to clarify amongst the many dangling threads – I rather cavalierly claimed Identity as a key recurring theme. Identity in theatre.
Oedipus? Hamlet? It seems to me all the great plays are about one person usually finding out who they are and often in the best plays they do that through action. Action that tells them (and us) who they are by how they go about getting there. That’s what we are there to watch. Again and again. We are there to witness the way to get to know yourself before the blackout.
For a long time after I knew I had to deliver this lecture I focused rather stupidly on this pulsing screaming number – FORTY-FIVE … Forty five minutes. I made copious notes and read and re-read the many books that have moulded me and I kept hitting the surface of the speech. FORTY-FIVE minutes. And then I realised that content is kind of infinite like tracing a coastline. The thing all writers should seek is not content (there’s oodles of that) but structure. Today I went for three parts. The now, the personal and the cultural. Making sense of all those different push-me pull-yous is the impossible task theatre practitioners set themselves.
Because theatre is a mercurial amalgam of the eternal now, the unknowable self and the ever-receding past. It is about life and death and how to live. And it is right there in front of you. Now. And then gone for ever, until tomorrow.
The Philip Parsons Memorial Lecture was delivered by Andrew Upton at Belvoir on Sunday 2 December 2012