This is a slightly extended version of a talk I gave last night at the first Gobo networking night. Gobo is a new digital ‘match-making’ service for venues and theatre-makers – it’s launching soon and you can find out more here
The title of the talk and this piece was one of those that I just threw up in the air, hoped to catch, but had as much likelihood as falling down and smashing, or bouncing away in another direction…
“Who am I and why am I talking to you about Post Capitalist Creation? As you may already have deduced my name is Deborah Mason and I’m a multi-disciplinary artist and cultural activist. I do some of my work in theatre and performance and trained (some time ago) as an actor as well as an artist. I’m part of the What Next? movement and a little while ago I met Camilla, after a meeting at the Young Vic and we got to talking. I seem to remember rambling on about new methods of running rehearsals and creating work and that’s mostly what I’m going to talk about – so why call it Post Capitalist Creation?
In 2011 I had both a deep depression and an epiphanic moment of revelation. I need creativity in my life – to be happy – but I also need to do things to make the world a better place – I was at the time working for a charity and the sense of achievement through little things that went towards a greater central good – also contributed to my sense of self-worth. So – no more hedonistic acting career but one that encompassed a range of creative activity that all had somewhere in it a step – however small – towards changing the world – you can read about some of my thoughts on this blog which is where I published my manifesto for a reimagined world.
I have continued to work on a range of projects and many are linked by a desire to question old hierarchies and their ways of doing things and new ways of working with people. I found in reading Paul Mason’s (no relation) book Postcapitalism a phrase that summed up, perhaps, what I had been attempting and also a description, perhaps, of the person I now am.
I quote: “Today the main contradiction in modern capitalism is between the possibilities of free, abundant socially produced goods, and a system of monopolies, banks and governments struggling to maintain control over power and information. That is everything pervaded by a fight between network and hierarchy”
Network and hierarchy
I quote again: “The rapid change in technology is altering the nature of work, blurring the distinction between work and leisure and requiring us to participate in the creation of value across our whole lives, not just in the workplace. This gives us multiple economic personalities which is the economic base on which a new kind of person, with multiple selves, has emerged. It is this new kind of person, the networked individual, who is the bearer of the post capitalist society that could now emerge.”
Well I think we all know someone who’s life involves a blurring of work and leisure, who has multiple economic personalities and multiple selves and that that might not be as new as Paul thinks but perfectly normal for many many people, like us, trying to survive in the creative world. How hard is it, when asked in a non-professional context – say a pub at Christmas – ‘what do you do?’ – to just say ‘director’, ‘actor’ ‘dramaturg’ or do you find yourself giving a life-history: ‘well I do a bit of acting and I’m currently a temp at x and I also write a bit and occasionally work behind the bar in my local pub and do a bit of dog-walking’. Sound familiar?
And the fight between network and hierarchy – well here with Gobo is a prime example … I don’t know about you but I have struggled and been frustrated by the hierarchies surrounding theatrical space – the perception by the venues themselves, their artistic directors and chief executives, the critical community, the peer group that a certain type of venue is ‘better’ than another type and therefore it cannot be made available to people who don’t match against the right level in their parallel hierarchy as director/producer/theatre company, . – not even – to quote Oscar Wilde ‘for ready money’. A hierarchy, as we all know, built in a vicious circle on our ability to present work in the right place to the right people, in order to progress to the point in our the hierarchy where we are allowed to do so!
Gobo has created a network of alternatives, providing advice and information that allows us to save time and effort by understanding where the rules apply and where they don’t. Network v hierarchy.
I’m interested in these things, but I am more interested in the way in which we work in rehearsal rooms and in the creation of work, hierarchies also operate there – quite simple ones – the director is in charge, but answerable to the artistic director or producer – if there is one. If working with a very high value star then the Director may not, in fact, be at the top of the hierarchy. The other actors are simply the droids of the theatreworld doing the bidding of others, expected to obey and perform without question – including inputting creatively but in such a way that does not challenge the boundaries set for them and which is almost always – in the mainstream at least – mediated by the director, producer or writer.
So – some examples of working differently – these are not always radical differences sometimes simple shifts of emphasis or responsibility – the work itself is not always radical as the experiment may be in the process not the product.
The project I first spoke to Camilla about was my production of Julius Caesar, this was inspired by the Arab Spring and the London Riots, set in modern London, with a live twitter feed into which characters, cast, techcrew and audience could all input. I sought to fully engage the audience in this most political of Shakespeare’s plays in the hope that in so doing they might then become more politically engaged. Using the play as an exploration of democracy I felt I needed to make an effort to direct it democratically – not necessarily voting on key decisions but attempting to give as much autonomy and freedom to the actors and backstage teams as was practical. The two main actions towards actor autonomy were these:
In choosing a modern London setting for the play I felt confident in asking the actors and creative back stage team to create the context for themselves. At our first rehearsal we sat down, I laid out some basic parameters made some suggestions and then put actors into relationship groups and told them to figure out who they were in this context, what their relationships were. They then fed back to me and the group when they were done. From this basis we created the play. I also worked to direct action in a different way – for the crowd scenes we had about 20 people on the stage, I’m not a fan of clunky Shakespearean crowd scenes that are clearly choreographed and managed with stagey ‘shouts’ and ‘angry sounds’. I also didn’t have the time to tell 20 people individually what to do and how to act. So I used an amalgam of techniques borrowed from RSC movement workshops, Viewpoints, swarm choreography and CGI programming to algorithmically programme the crowd. This gives each character a series of ‘self-rules’ relating to the action that enables them to move, speak, react autonomously but also as a result of being part of the group and in concert with the group – this results in what appears to be spontaneous and unchoreographed – realistic – crowd action – but never results in anarchy or the players moving so far outside the context that it distracts from the action.
I had a very short rehearsal period, a large number of actors and a complex play. The successful delivery of it was in a large part down to handing creative power to the people involved rather than holding it all for myself – there is a responsibility in being director that means that you are the one who will take the heat if the play fails (although not necessarily the praise if it succeeds) and it is therefore scary to hand over power for that result to others. Taking that leap though was the ONLY way that this play was going to work – and it did work – – to quote from one review: “The production as a whole redeemed alternative approaches to Shakespeare by enhancing the text not distracting from it: Think Ian McKellen’s seminal Richard III set in 1930s England with Nazi overtones or RSC’s Merchant of Venice appropriately transported to a 1980s City trading floor.” – I’ll take that and in the words of the Chambourd advert ‘the trumpet won’t toot itself’.
For my next two challenges I looked at ways in which I could get the audience to get involved and take on some of the responsibility for the success of the play – the first – The Tiny Play Festival was more about getting them to understand what the considerations might be for making a successful play – in a night of 21 one minute plays by thirteen authors the audience was challenged in the interval to create phrases, sentences, quotes to put into their own play at the end of the night, once the moment came, those lines were drawn at random and read back to the audience by the team of six actors. Whilst the actors went and ‘rehearsed’ the audience, facilitated by me, decided on a context, and a back drop scene – which I live painted to their specification – for their show. The actors came back, performed, received notes from the audience-directors, performed again and show over – much of the audience feedback reflected on the fact that the evening had helped them understand what goes into making a play.
In Bears my collaborator, Hilary Jennings, and I handed over control of the plot to the audience. As part of a new writing night we created a ten minute play with three points in it where the audience could change the course of the play. Again using computer programming techniques each point allowed a flip switch to take it onto another course. The script was printed on two different colour papers. At the end of each section the Bears – who were trapped on an island with diminishing resources – would ask the ‘gods’ – the audience for help with a dilemma – the audience then voted white or blue and the result prompted the bears to turn to the next section of that colour. In one scenario the bears lived, in another they died. The audience’s choices at each stage determined the final outcome.
I also worked with Hilary on ‘Play in a Weekend’ an exercise that was originally designed as a way to encourage and give some training to people looking to move into directing, within an amateur group in South London. The play chosen was Two – and as some of you will know this is traditionally acted by two people with one director. It is a series of two-handed scenes with a range of characters in a pub in the north of England. Instead we had a company of 20 people comprising 8 directors and fifteen actors (some people did both) and about 12 hours of time in which to run some workshops and put on the play. Most of the Saturday was taken up with the workshops, discussing things like to warm-up or not warm-up, working with the text, miming (which is part of this particular play), and only a small part in rehearsing. Despite this short time scale, there was little panic, no diva-tantrums and a successful performance. Shared responsibility – every single person in the production having the same responsibility for success – meant a much calmer and more efficient process and a greater chance of success.
I’m about to embark on another experimental project with Hilary and hopefully we’ll push the boundaries a little more again this time!
Does any of this matter and how is this relevant to you?
I think it does matter, I’ve alluded to the hierarchies that exist in the creative world, we are trained to accept them and work within them. A lot of the ways in which we define ourselves as ‘professional’ in this world have little to do with being paid and much to do with a variety of externally set ‘rules’ that we abide by in order to be accepted – it’s a bit like being part of 19th Century English society – are you a lady, are you a gentleman? If you are born a Duchess you can break as many rules as you like and nobody can say you’re not, but if you are just Miss Mason with five thousand a year, then you must know all the rules and show you know them in order not to get kicked back into the middle classes and denied access to high society. In the theatre world (and other creative spheres) we still operate in this sort of society and I challenge it as unproductive and unhelpful. Not networked. Not 21st Century.
I want to work with people, a wide range of people, in a collaborative way that produces work that through process or end product makes people think differently about the way things are or could be and the way things might be done differently. Both creatively and in society.
Get in touch if you’d like to talk further!