Monday, 10 August 2015

Open Dramaturgy: Jack Revell @ Edfringe 2015

What inspired this production: did you begin with an idea or a script or an object?
Jack Revell: OPEN is really the result of a social experiment. Churchill once said that the best argument against democracy is a five minute conversation with the average voter and this is something that we have put to the test in the creation of the play. From going out onto the street and interviewing passers by, we’ve devised an hour of theatre based around the opinions of the Great British public, ultimately examining what it means to be British today. 

Where does your piece at the fringe fit with your usual work?
We, The Nottingham New Theatre company, mainly do our own productions of traditional scripted work. While a lot of this is shown in-house, we like to present original material in our studio season, at the Fringe and other external venues. This piece is really quite different from anything we have ever done before and we are excited to see the response to it and how it might develop our own in-house ideas in the next season.  

What can the audience expect to see and feel - or even think - of your production?
This is a largely non-narrative piece. It’s political theatre but there isn’t an agenda or message we are trying to push. We are here with a survey of the diversity of opinion that makes up this country. Expect to see a whole range of characters and surprising dialogue, none of which you are obliged to agree or disagree with. Every viewpoint expressed is valid and honest and we really want people to come away discussing what they have just seen. We expect it to spark a lot of conversation.  

The Dramaturgy Questions

How would you explain the relevance - or otherwise - of dramaturgy within your work?
In a sense verbatim theatre subverts a lot of dramaturgical thinking. The research and development side of the production really revolves around what speech you gather. Trying to push people into a specific response or line of thinking when interviewing them often skews the dialogue or makes it unusable since you don't want to start an argument. You just have to let people go and listen to what they have to say. 

It’s during the assembly of all these scraps of speech afterwards that dramaturgy is particularly relevant. Once we had all our information, dramaturgy informed our response to it and how we ultimately used it on stage.     

What particular traditions and influences would you acknowledge on your work -  have any particular artists, or genres inspired you and do you see yourself within their tradition?

Verbatim theatre is the primary influence here, which I think of as sort of the logical conclusion of the tradition of naturalism. If Naturalism is all about creating something representative of real life, verbatim theatre takes this a step closer by re-creating exactly what took place in a real life situation. It’s more documentary than anything else. 

There’s big verbatim pieces that have gained a lot of attention in the last few years which I suppose made me aware of the concept. The Laramie Project was a big one, as was London Road. We’ve got live music and spoken word poetry in there which was inspired by seeing what London Road did with recorded speech and music. The Riots by Gillian Slovo was influential in the sense that it got me thinking you could address controversial topics through theatre without being divisive. 

The documentary and impartiality aspect of verbatim theatre really appeals to me, as you can largely get away with saying things you could never write. The whole point of OPEN is not to give a message but to present all sides of the social debate and to spark conversations once it's over.  
At the same time, verbatim theatre as a concept is fairly flawed in its attempts to be authentic. The whole notion of being another person and not being that person when playing a character on stage makes verbatim theatre slightly redundant. You can’t capture the setting or the spontaneity of natural speech through replicating it, and by removing it from its original context you change the meaning. There is also the whole process of content selection which adds another level of distortion. So even though verbatim theatre is more honest in some respects, there is still a lot of room for manipulation of the content and for directors to put their own spin on things. 

Personally, we have embraced this. Political verbatim theatre has a tendency to be seen as either gimmicky or sombre, and deserving of careful consideration. We have tried to be a bit different with this, acknowledging the flaws in the approach and using them to drive the play. About 90 percent of what you see on stage comes from the mouths of real people but the delivery has been modified to enhance meaning. 

By this I mean we choose points to purposefully exaggerate and adapt characters to amplify the message in their dialogue. A lot of people drop pretty deep and disturbing ideas as though they were the most casual thing in the world, which sometimes works but doesn’t always make great theatre. Though we retain the original for most of the play, we also like to bend what has been said to maximise its effect and get people noticing the extreme breadth of opinion in our society. It’s verbatim theatre, only a bit more flavoursome.   

Do you have a particular process of making that you could describe - where it begins, how you develop it, and whether there is any collaboration in the process?
It all begins with the question ‘what does being British mean today?’ which is something that was thrown around a lot during the general election. The Conservatives very much tried to frame the national debate as one of idealism and what we want to be as a country, while scaring people away from the ‘weakness’ of Labour and the chaos of all other parties. Those in power seemed to have a pretty good idea of what their vision for the future of this country was (free market fundamentalism, austerity, individualism etc.) but we weren’t so sure that the average person on the street would agree or even know themselves. So we decided to find out. 

We simply stopped people all over the country and asked them what they thought being British meant. We sought out stories, conversations, and anecdotes that give a snapshot into British culture and society. We then decided to house all of this information in a place that everyone can relate to, somewhere basic but foundational. The chippy was the obvious choice. Not only is it universal, it also has interesting significance in terms of immigration, which is something that came up a lot in our conversations. The vast majority of chip shops now are run by people whose heritage is not British and the kebab is the more likely take-out choice than fish and chips for the average punter. 

Wanting to frame ‘low’ opinion against the backdrop of the elite we thought the context of election night made a lot of sense. It’s like the all hallows eve of politics, the night of ‘what if?’ that settles back into bland similarity the morning after. We wanted to borrow some of that liminality to make the conversations more pertinent and powerful. 

It’s all been developed through the guiding principle of ‘what will make people think?’. The collaboration in this project is really with the rest of the population, or at least our idealised impression of them. What would they need to see to get them talking?    

What do you feel the role of the critic is? 
I feel the role of the critic essentially boils down to giving a thumbs up or thumbs down on a piece of theatre - letting others know if it is worth their time and money and that anyone can do it (though it all comes down to eminence and prestige). 

I think that the role of the critic is essentially divided between guiding people towards what is innovative and what is entertaining. Shows can be hugely entertaining but have little ‘artistic merit’ and alternatively be not very entertaining but have a lot to theoretical innovation. The critic is ultimately a curator of the arts, but one who has to be able to read and command public support. I think being a good critic involves identifying those shows with the perfect balance of innovation and entertainment. It’s a fairly tricky balancing act but the best critics should be able to be constructive to the arts and not simply divisive or dogmatic.    

Are there any questions that you feel I have missed out that would help me to understand how dramaturgy works for you?
I think that there is a big subconscious or semi-conscious element to the way dramaturgy works for a lot of people. I went to university and studied theatre, so I could name drop a whole host of critics and theorists who influenced this play and the way it’s put together. 

Obviously, the Fringe is filled with professionally trained people who are all aware of the schools of theory they are moving within, or against, with their work. However the more amateur and DIY sections of the festival are probably not directly influenced by dramaturgy in a first-hand sense and pick up practices and techniques through watching other productions. I think a lot of people just do what looks or feels right to them, however this doesn’t come from some innate, inner knowledge of what ‘right’ is but is actually pushed by their engagement in culture; absorbing and storing information as they go through life. In this way I think dramaturgy has a more subtle and semi-conscious way of affecting people, and this is particularly evident in devised theatre, which is an even bigger mash up of ideas. 

I think a lot of people aren’t really sure why they make dramaturgical choices, or at least the significance of those choices. Of course, it takes theorists and critics to articulate theatrical trends or schools of thought. It’s institutional members who join the dots between practitioners working in similar ways who identify ‘movements’ in the arts. Asking directly about dramaturgy probably wont get reveal the sources of people's knowledge, since they themselves cannot really know.

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