Engaged or manipulated – you decide… Or do you?

This week I have been to two very interesting theatrical experiences.  The first on Tuesday was at the Royal Court.   It was a traditional format, realistic play set in some nice box sets on a proscenium arch stage.   If it hadn’t been for the cultural references it could have been written anytime from about 1930 onwards.  So why was it so brilliant, why did it hold its audience in thrall – and we were – the packed house was clearly gripped for the whole 3 hour experience – but why?  Well it was written by the very talented Mike Bartlett and acted with passion and precision by the cast, so that helps.

Having only seen two other Mike Bartlett plays – ‘Earthquakes in London’ and ’13’ I was expecting it to be political – to have some kind of question or message.  But I am still pondering what that was… Perhaps ‘the baby-boomer generation destroyed the world’ .. ‘you never had it so good mum and dad, we never had it so bad’… ‘selfish is as selfish does’?

I don’t know but I keep thinking about it – it still has me gripped, engaged and wishing it had had a couple more acts – I’d have happily sat and watched till midnight.

The second piece of theatre I went to see deliberately set out to engage the audience, to debate with them, to quite literally and physically interact with them.  This was Uninvited Guests ‘Make Better Please’ at BAC.

I had booked to go and see it with someone I am working on an interactive/audience engagement writing project with.  Both of us are really interested in how audience engagement and politically engendered arts might actually make a difference – might indeed ‘make better please’.  So we turned up yesterday very keen to find out more and to take part fully.

After the show we sat down and discussed what we thought we had experienced, whether we understood what Univited Guests had hoped for us to understand – what had been their intended outcomes in creating the piece.

Clearly they wanted us, the audience to be part of it.  The evening started with the audience divided into 4 groups around a tea table piled high with the day’s newspapers.  We were asked to help ourselves to tea and browse the papers for stories that upset, shocked or angered us – ‘bad news stories’.  When we found one we were to write just the headline on a piece of paper (provided) and keep hold of it.  We then went round our table and read out our headlines and explained a bit about the story.  We were then asked to choose one story to have a further debate on.  Eventually someone came round and gathered up our written out headlines and we were asked to sit in a circle and nominate one person to tell the rest of the groups about the story we selected.  We chose the ‘Ugly women shouldn’t be on TV’ story, there was also the story about two girls jumping off a bridge, two relating to the increasing divisions of society and the increase in extremism, one of which focussed specifically on the French Elections.

The ‘actors’ then came into play – they told people that they were characters from these stories – except that these weren’t our stories but some others they had chosen, and then got us to ‘imagine’ these stories.  For me this just didn’t work, the stories felt imposed, it felt like I was in some kind of forum theatre training exercise, that the audience were being manipulated rather than engaged with.  They then went on to tell us that they were certain  people from ‘our stories’ – except again they chose rather blatant ‘topical’ figures – Cameron and Hunt, Boris and Ken, that no-one in the room seemed to have identified except the actors themselves – we had to put questions to them.  We enjoyed this.  But not the fact that they didn’t answer them.  We were engaging with them – but were they with us?  Then it all kicked off and became a bit 1960s/70s New York Art Scene – a lot of noise, a giant paper phallus, masks for the dead, more exciting, a bit disorientating. However, slightly disconcertingly, one of the things that got banished in this quasi-shamanistic section was ‘ugly women on tv’ – not quite our point in fact!

Finally the curtains were pulled back the windows opened and light and air let in.  The actress turned and told us a happy story about May Day and her wedding anniversary.  We were invited to reflect.  Invited to think about a happy story from the news and then, when we were ‘moved’ to do so, to tell it to the group – Quaker meeting style.  Interestingly  only a very few stories were from the press (and mostly about sport), but people happily shared a good moment or a good thing for their lives.  It was a cathartic thing – probably the most genuine thing about the whole evening – one woman was actually in tears having told us that her good thing was ‘I’m proud of my daughter’, a man sat smiling so happily having announced ‘I have fallen in love’.

But what did it mean, what was the point.  The thing I took away from it was that whilst we can find plenty in the media and in politics and in society to be upset and angry about, it is the small things in our own lives that make us happy.  That we are turning inward and away from politics and ‘society’ to provide us with anything positive, we find it only in our own lives and our micro-societies – a lot of the good things offered were random acts of kindness in this big City of ours.

Although I think (perhaps I’m wrong) that the intention of Univited Guests was to genuinely engage with the audience, to help us psychologically rid ourselves of the bad, what in fact happened (for me at least) was a mirroring of what they sought to anlayse.  The facilitators  of each group took notes of our discussions, these notes then made up graffiti on the walls, which the actors used as jumping off points and inspirations.  But the notes were distilled, unthought through, not necessarily representative of the views of the group, nor of the depth of feeling about one topic over another.  In the case of our group they completely reversed the thing we were upset about – not that there are ‘ugly women on tv’ – but that people should think this is a bad thing and call for them to be removed or have make-overs.  Although we shared our choices with the actors – they didn’t seem always to listen to them – they continued to use stories that they wanted to use rather than giving more weight to what we had given them.  To me this was akin to the politicians saying that they had listened to the nation about the NHS (for example) and then doing the opposite of what everyone was saying – but insisting all the while that they had ‘listened’.  It is also akin to the way in which the media tells us what stories we are interested in – ‘The Nation is up in arms about this…’ – actually it would seem that we are not! If our choice of stories last night was anything to go by we were more incensed by poor care for the young, by divisions in society, by sexism, racism and poverty than we were about Murdoch or mayors, or the so-called Government!  Perhaps in the end Univited Guests simply reiterated and reinforced the notion that our voices are not heard, that a system of representation by an elite few, of a diverse many, will always be flawed no matter how good the intentions of the few.  On the eve of the London mayoral and assembly elections this was an interesting message to take away.

One thing is certain though – if you don’t join in – if you don’t make your choice and defend it and speak for it – then it will never be heard – or even misheard – and there is a chance that even if the person you wanted to speak for you doesn’t – others have heard, others will join their voice to yours, eventually there will be enough people saying ‘stop you’re going the wrong way’ that there will be a change of direction.

Make your own mind up!

Make Better Please is on until 12th May – info/tickets here:

http://www.bac.org.uk/whats-on/make-better-pleaseUG/

Love Love Love is on until 9th June info/tickets here:

http://www.royalcourttheatre.com/whats-on/love-love-love

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