The revolution will not be theatricalised

Fri, Jan 18, 2013, 00:00

Ireland's young theatremakers need to ask themselves one question: what are you rebelling against?

In the bustling first days of The Theatre Machine Turns You On: Volume 3, a two-week mini-festival curated by Theatreclub, its savvy young organisers seemed too busy to rethink their revolution.

Presenting four shows a day in the small space of the Project Arts Centre is a logistical challenge. Theatreclub’s directors, Grace Dyas and Shane Byrne, were in constant motion, offering clasps of reassurance to participants, dealing with enquiries so frequently that carpal tunnel syndrome seemed one email away. But this activity all seemed familiar.

So, too, did much of the work at the festival, which tends towards sparse and playful documentary theatre where real people investigate various subjects – often themselves – while incorporating numerous cliched tropes of postdramatic performance: an office desk; an overhead projector; a microphone downstage left, or sometimes right.

“Revolution is a change of mind,” runs the tagline to this year’s festival of new and emerging artists, but in the few months since Theatreclub began receiving applications for the festival, the identity crisis they hoped to address seemed to have spread from society to its art form. Following a series of surprisingly heated online exchanges among theatre practitioners in December, the worth of experimental theatre itself was in dispute, dismissed (or defended) as, “theatre about theatre” and “shows where everyone is playing a version of themselves”. The counter-revolution was on their minds.

“I do see where they come from,” Dyas says of alternative theatre’s detractors. “I just don’t know if their criticisms are useful.” The Theatre Machine’s revolution, she thinks, is a gentle one. “Maybe it doesn’t need to be bloodshed in the streets; maybe it’s a revolution in thought, something so small you don’t even notice it until later. We wanted to give people the space to ask questions.”

To judge from the work featured in the first week, those questions concern the politics of identity, language and contemporary feminism, but it is unclear what those questions were.

Dizzy with videos, computers and slideshows, Neil Douglas’s We Didn’t Care When, an autobiographical report of his response to his mother’s cancer, seems more engaged with its methods than message, leading gradually from flippancy to guilt but never seeming less than self-absorbed.

Gerard Kelly, a sympathetic performer with the body of a heavyweight, does something more intriguing within a mock-heroic report of childhood, infused with boxer and superhero fantasies.

Though it errs on the side of comedy, it contains teasing games involving the manufacture of masculinity and identity (“Thinking back, I was finding a persona,” Kelly says of his teenage years, and the show suggests an actor’s search continues). Yet it is loath to reach further: “I don’t want to leave you with any big message.” He isn’t alone.

Little progress

There is much to admire in the writing of Oisín McKenna’s Writer/Performer/Salesman, a piece about finding the room for creativity within workaday retail jobs, which McKenna describes, aptly, as “more of a long-form poem than theatre” (and which director Oonagh Murphy tries to coax further towards the stage).

It is also articulate about its own political hesitancy. “Try never to speak with too much authority about anything floating outside of the boundaries of your own experience,” goes one line. “Don’t try to speak for whole classes or groups whose experience you don’t have rightful access to. Talk about boys, drugs and working in retail, going to nightclubs and going home early.” That resounds like a self-critique, but McKenna is genuinely wary.

“It’s to do with how well you can appropriate other experiences and express them through yourself,” he says, which sounds, uncannily, like the best measure of a contemporary theatre maker, a traditional playwright or, for that matter, a revolutionary.

It would be unfair to accuse the participants of solipsism: as Dyas puts it, “They’re all using the private to be public in different ways”, and others made work that sought material beyond the confines of their own lives. The most interesting of these is Tell, a piece inspired by the sudden segregation, in 1947, of the girls at St Mary’s School for the Deaf in Cabra, when sign language was abruptly dropped for oralist techniques, such as lip-reading and speech therapy. Gemma Collins, Stephen Lehane and Dylan Coburn Gray incorporate an ambitious, estranging sound design and a physical performance both elegant and disturbing to depict the violence of “year zero” and people sundered from language.

Providing the background to that decision through fractured messages while portraying its effect on the students with an absorbing, abstract aesthetic, theirs is a considered blend of style and substance.Still, it was hard to leave behind the anguished words of St Mary’s Sr Nicholas Griffey – “I knew in my heart that very little progress was being made” – without wondering the same about the language of alternative theatre.

Whaddya got?

In Safe Filth, the director-turned-performer Edwina Casey has a great topic and oceans of research – how mainstream fantasies of female submission, such as Fifty Shades of Grey and Mills Boon’s taboo-nudging subdivisions, could be accommodated within contemporary feminism – but little to say about it.

If anything, her performance lecture avoids taking a position – on pornography, the distance between fantasy and reality, or cognitive dissonance – as though its only politics are pluralism.

A prolonged question-and-answer format keeps returning to the same increasingly frustrated query: what is your point?

It is easier to espy in Sorcha Kenny’s Dolls, a well-executed and witty dance piece about how women are objectified by both men and women but which relies heavily on a soundtrack of extreme and outre examples (the 1950s Betsy Wetsy doll, Miss Mini UK, men who had pledged their lives to sex dolls). Or in Ali Matthews’s Eve Speaks, a cabaret parodying the Book of Genesis.

Neither piece is breaking a new path, which itself seems revealing, as though the groundwork of feminism must be continually resurfaced for every generation. But following the death of Savita Halappanavar, the popular protest to legislate for the X case, and renewed attention to gender and body politics, these pieces seem most in tune with the moment.

Although Theatreclub offers a capable network of producers, mentors and support to its participants, it would benefit most from more ruthless dramaturgy. “What are you rebelling against?” Marlon Brando is asked in The Wild One, and whatever the answer (“Whaddya got?”) it’s a useful question. The sharper focus of such provocation may not lead directly to a revolution, but it should keep the world turning.

The Theatre Machine Turns You On: Vol 3 ends tomorrow.

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