Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Visual Theatre

Last night, during my weekly session  with Tramway Young Critics, I treated the lively young minds to a discourse straight  out of my musty, old fashioned brain. In an attempt to explain why I had rather enjoyed a production that they had found impenetrable (God, The Good and The Guillotine), I started to define all the difference sorts of performance, from live art to classical concerts, assign them a definition and show their interdependence. 

When I saw them nodding off, I threw in a desperate save. "These are only guidelines, allowing us to see how different art forms can be blended and integrated."

Readers of this blog will be familiar with my enthusiasm for undermining my arguments in a final throwaway line. This was like that, only in real time.

It does bring me back to a project I began before Christmas, which ended in failure: the attempt to define Visual Theatre. The best description of this sort of work did come from Simon Abbott (Physical Theatre Scotland). He uses a Venn diagram to demonstrate how visual theatre sits between various, more familiar formats. 

I felt very stupid that my definition was "not a radio play."

I did manage to collect a few definitions from across the internet, though. 

Over at Questfest, they gave me this one. Facile comments in plain type are mine.

Movement is the central organizing principle in visual theatre. Like in dance? And what about shows like the one they used to have at the Windmill in Soho? I'm not trying to bring everything down to the level of the naked lady show, but they used to have this review at the Windmill, where the performers were not allowed to move if they were naked. So they stood still, starkers. Difficult to argue it is high art theatre, maybe, but it is a visual performance and movement was not the centre of the piece.

Performers communicate information, relationships and emotions primarily through movement such as traditional mime, various forms of dance, sign language, gesture, or the circus arts. Other visual theatre choices include puppetry and masks. Visual theatre is not necessarily silent or non-verbal. It may contain spoken word, music, or other sound. It may also contain multimedia elements such as video or projections. 

However, the essential meaning of any visual theatre piece transpires through its visual vernacular, which contradicts the first sentence. And includes the Windmill review, as well as that time I put a painting on the stage and made people stare at it for half an hour, before closing the curtain. 

Here's Lyn Gardner's thoughts, off of the Guardian. Being a critic, I'll defer to her, naturally.

Theatre is a physical and visual medium, but the play’s not always the thing. There is a strand of theatre – the physical and the visual – that speaks a completely different language from the traditional well made play and spans theatre, puppetry, dance and visual arts. This work uses the language of gesture, an area of theatre that in the past was dubbed mime and thought of as entirely silent. Nowadays such pieces frequently include spoken text, but the body speaks as eloquently as the voice, and one of the great strengths of this form is that it can often mine the emotions that fall in the silences between words. Much of this work is devised not scripted, and although many of the UK companies working in this area have been influenced by European traditions, increasing numbers of young companies are developing their own distinct and excitingly high voltage styles.

My congenital rudeness aside, a paragraph like that challenges anyone who doesn't see the critic as an artist. The prose has the same precision as Camus' The Stranger and gets past all of the problems by invoking theatre's emotional resonance.

From the Artistic Policy of DV8 Physical Theatre (UK)
This work is about taking risks, aesthetically and physically, about breaking down the barriers between dance, theatre and personal politics and, above all, communicating ideas and feelings clearly and unpretentiously. It is determined to be radical yet accessible, and to take its work to as wide an audience as possible… The focus of the creative approach is on reinvesting dance with meaning, particularly where this has been lost through formalized techniques… The work inherently questions the traditional aesthetics and forms which pervade both modern and classical dance, and attempts to push beyond the values they reflect to enable discussion of wider and more complex issues.
I love DV8: they were one of the British companies that transplanted the physical theatre movement into the UK from Europe, and came at it as dancers. This is a little closer to a manifesto than a definition, but has the same clarity of purpose that Gardner brought to her description.

Taking these ideas back to my Young Critics, perhaps the important thing isn't to know what category an art-work ought to belong to, but a more direct engagement with the emotional content and the message being carried. One of the things I was doing last night in my mini-lecture was impressing upon the students how, as a teacher, I know stuff and that my opinion has some kind of authority. When they got up, did their podcast and talked about their experience of 3G without feeling the need to bang on about where it fits in the history of  theatre,  I realised they were doing the teaching again: a reminder that definitions, like the teachings of the Buddha, are merely a boat. They get me across the river, but there's no need to carry it on the land...

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