This is theatre, baby, and there are three things you need to make it work
CULTURE SHOCK: EVER SINCE the advent of cinema and television, theatre has existed on the edge of irrelevance, which is not necessarily a bad place to be.
A huge chunk of what it did in western societies in the 18th and 19th centuries has disappeared. With rare exceptions, theatre no longer fills demand for mass entertainment. It is not “popular culture”, a field assumed to contain mainstream movies, pop music, TV shows, YouTube and nonliterary novels. And every so often theatre companies worry about this. Especially now, and especially for those who are young, this is a source of anxiety.
Anxiety, in this case, is largely a good thing, certainly better than complacency about the innate merits of high art. It’s especially good for theatre, which has always had a healthy relationship with “popular culture”. (We tend to forget that the exquisite Greek tragedies were followed in performance by satyr plays with lots of knob jokes.) There’s a difference, though, between being anxious and losing confidence. Anyone interested in making theatre has to worry all the time about where their art form fits in contemporary culture.
But they also have to hold on to a basic belief in theatre itself. Otherwise they’d be better off making pop videos.
As it happens, the difference between healthy anxiety and loss of confidence is well illustrated by two pieces from the same company. Thisispopbaby, founded five years ago, by Jennifer Jennings and Philip McMahon, has a manifesto commitment to “rip up the space between popular culture, counter culture, queer culture and high art” – an admirable ambition. This time last year, it produced Mark O’Halloran’s Trade for Dublin Theatre Festival. This work was named best new play at the Irish Times Theatre Awards. Now, for Dublin’s Absolut Fringe Festival, it is presenting Elevator at Project.
The broad intention of both pieces is the same: to move outside inherited notions of what theatre is and to explore sexuality as the arena in which human aspirations are tested. Both undermine the normal, passive relationship between audience and actors, in the case of Trade by placing the audience right on top of the action in a room at a city-centre BB, in Elevator by melding a theatre piece into a pop concert. Yet the contrast in achievement could hardly be greater.
Trade was utterly compelling; Elevator is nothing much.
This is unsurprising in itself: some stuff works and some doesn’t. But in this instance the difference clarifies something quite basic: before it can “rip up the space” between itself and anything else, theatre has to be clear about the space it occupies. That space is open and porous, but it has to take its bearings from at least three indispensable things. They form a hard, irreducible core without which no piece of theatre will work.
The first is the need to answer a basic question: what is at stake? Are we playing for matchsticks or is something serious on the table, something of consequence to be lost or won? You can play with forms, you can reinvent conventions, but you always have to come back to this question. And if you can’t answer it, you don’t have a piece that’s worth seeing.