In the Globe’s 2016 production of The Taming of the Shrew, there’s a moment when Biondello (performed by the brilliant Molly Logan) sits on the edge of the stage and wraps her legs around the head of a random man standing in the yard. Without his consent, he has involuntarily participated in the show and, in the process, non-consensually partaken in a rather intimate act with one of the performers. In the same season, Lucy Owen’s Puck eats a banana, shares it with a man in the audience and then passionately kisses him. I remember one of my friends asking, “What if their girlfriends were with them?” Surely though, there’s a much more serious issue at hand in the way that theatre-makers force participation on their audiences.
As the audience, what are we offering to the performers when we enter their playing space? Is there some sort of invisible contract that says we’ll behave in a certain way, respond in a certain manner and participate as necessary in service to the performers?
Katy Dye’s ruthless performance of Baby Face at Edinburgh’s Summerhall this year was outrageously unforgiving. She screamed and wailed like a baby that’s been left for dead, swinging a highchair around at speed like an angry child, and then – just at the moment when we realised that the only thing between her and us was the invisible fourth wall and the steps that lead down to the performance area – she pointed out a young man in the audience and asked him to come and join her. I was genuinely quite terrified for him at this moment. I legitimately thought he was going to be hurt. Dye was breaking the boundaries of theatre. The boundaries of performance art are often far more dangerous.
Never have I felt so uncomfortable for someone participating in a show before. And WHERE IS THE CONSENT? This individual is arguably, given a choice. He doesn’t have to get up. But that would completely protest the conventions of performance: where the performers are in control of the space and we do what they say. There’s a major social anxiety that comes with performing in front of an audience in any context, but I think more so when it’s involuntary participation: when you don’t know what’s coming, and you’re confronted with the fear/anxieties of getting it wrong or looking foolish in front of an audience by saying or doing something stupid. But then there’s a Catch 22. Because if you refuse to get up, refuse to participate, you’re doing that very thing: you’re embarrassing yourself, you’re getting it wrong, you’re ‘ruining’ the performance.
In another moment of the show, Dye dressed in school uniform and asked a man in the audience if he found her attractive. He was speechless. He didn’t know what to say, because nothing that he could say would make the situation OK; even saying nothing wouldn’t fix it but doing so seemed easier than getting it wrong.
Baby Face is just one example of this troubling grey area of participation and consent. We try to look away, but we can’t: by looking away, by not answering the question, by refusing to get up, we’re still participating. Should we expect that as an audience of any show? As an audience of a show which categorises itself as performance art?
And Baby Face certainly isn’t alone in using audience participation at my Fringe visit this year. The frankly brilliant Lights Over Tesco Car Park invited participants to the stage to take part in various segments: in one, someone is blindfolded whilst the performer used a variety of objects to create a foley soundscape which accompanied the telling of a story. As a part of this, the performer – completely unbeknownst to the blindfolded participant – held a needle to a balloon and teased the audience with the threat of popping the balloon. But do we feel the same towards this moment as we do in participatory moments of Baby Show? …probably not. No. No we definitely do not. Because the whole thing is done in jest. The show is built on comedy. We feel safe and welcomed from the moment we enter the space, so we know that, realistically, the participant is safe too.
A similar thing happened in Norris and Parker’s comedy sketch show Burn the Witch: a participant was brought up onto the stage and asked to join in with a finale dance. But, in the performance I was at anyway, the participant loved it. We were totally laughing with them, and they took complete pleasure in entertaining us. In Burnt Lemon’s The Half Moon Shania, one of the performers straddled a man in the front row and touched the face of another: but, again, most of us didn’t feel uncomfortable at this. It’s sort of just accepted as a part of the show. Personally, I wouldn’t want it to happen to me: I’d feel viscerally uncomfortable. But I never seem to get picked on for these things. Maybe I have a look which suggests I don’t want to be involved? I was once made to twerk in front of the Theatre Royal Stratford East’s pantomime audience, and it was horrible. I actually refused to go up for the segment (sort of knowing what was going to happen), but the performer basically dragged me on and I felt guilty saying no.
So where is the line between acceptable and unacceptable participation? If the desired effect is one of comedy, is that when it’s acceptable? Is that why Baby Face is breaking boundaries? Because even the Globe’s ‘participation’ was essentially for comedy. And the audience did laugh. And the participants were laughing along too.
When talking about the Globe, someone said to me that participation is almost a part of being a groundling in the yard. That by standing in that space, you’re offering your permission to be used as part of the show: to be moved out the way by a rushing actor, to get splashed or spat on, or, apparently, to have your head wrapped between someone else’s legs. But SURELY this cannot be the case? Surely by buying a ticket to a performance event, we’re not giving our consent to be made to feel physically uncomfortable.
If something wouldn’t be OK outside of the parameters of performance, then what makes it OK just because it happens in a designated performance space? We talk of theatres as safe spaces, so do we need to spend a little more time caring for our audiences and thinking really carefully about how we’re asking them to consent to their participation?
It all started when I realised just how much I wanted my life to end.
My name is Annie Cheung and I am an actress from Hong Kong. In 2017, I received a prestigious scholarship to study at Mountview, one of the best drama schools in London but despite this opportunity to pursue my dream, I am still a very unhappy person. Well, that’s a bit of an understatement; I suffer from high-functioning depression.
I have never attempted suicide but always welcomed the idea of all kinds of fatal accidents befalling me. I still feel ashamed to admit to having these thoughts because I know that many people who have died in tragic accidents would have loved the opportunity to live. And I am afraid to tell people about my unhappiness for fear that they will think that I am ungrateful, self-pitying and self-indulgent. After all, that’s what I think of myself.
Every day I put on a smile and arm myself with positive thoughts. As an actress, acting happy and confident is something I have been able to pull off quite convincingly and to be honest, I see it as a necessity: who would want to be around a sad and negative person? And also, fake it ‘til you make it, right? Sometimes it does work. Just like what we call the ‘outside-in’ technique in acting, what you do really can affect how you feel. The endorphins produced after yoga or running also help me, but not enough to make me love my life.
Whilst training at drama school, I undertook something called the ‘Creative Project’, which required me to combine practice and research and craft this into a creative performance. To start with, I had no idea at all what I should do. All I wanted was to find a way to become a happier person; I was so sick of crying alone in my room. I turned to Google and searched for ‘depression’ and ‘drama therapeutic performance’. This was how I came to realise that I had all the symptoms of high-functioning depression and discovered a genre of theatre called ‘self-revelatory performance’ which merges therapy and performance.
Over the course of six sessions with a drama therapist, my fears and struggles were gradually uncovered: I feel unwanted as an actress, I feel unwanted as a wife, I feel unwanted as a human being. Since the day I was born, I have been trying so hard to make myself worthy of being wanted and whenever I realise that I am less than perfect (which I guess everybody is!), I question the meaning of my existence in the world. Through these six drama therapy sessions, my solo performance, DOTS, started to emerge.
When I tried to turn these intimate and personal materials into an artistic theatre performance, I was confronted with another fear: would it become a self-indulgent show? Would the audience think, “Oh my god, please leave this shit to your therapist! I don’t want to know that!”? As the writer/performer/director, would I be capable of making the show entertaining, truthful and insightful? Fortunately, the laughter and tears of my first audience at Mountview did reassure me that I do have a meaningful story to share. Their feedback gave me the courage to bring the show to the public, to share it with more people. That is how DOTS came to Camden Fringe. It’s really something truly unexpected. Serendipity, I would say.
I can’t say all my problems are solved and I am completely turned into an optimistic and happy person because of the six therapy sessions and this show. No. Life is more complicated than that. However, I do feel that I have changed for the better. I have started enjoying the process instead of just caring about the result. And as a person, I finally feel that my life has something to contribute, that I have something to offer to the lives of others because now I have the urge to create something and share with people. I think this is good enough. And looking back, I am grateful for having this horribly dark period because such experience forcibly drove me to create. In Chinese, the term for the word ‘create’ involves a character which could mean ‘wound’ (創) and another character which means ‘work’ (作). To me, this is true. All my creative work, be it a song, be it a play, originated from my wounds. And now I understand why. Because art heals and brings hope.
DOTS will also be playing the Maiden Speech Theatre Festival at the Tristan Bates Theatre on 1 December 2018.
With a play titled Living with a Dark Lord, you would expect it to be based on an evil villain from some sort of horror novel. However, it is quite the opposite. It is a heart-warming and hilarious production in which three sisters – Maeve, Aisling and Cait – take you through their childhood memories of what it was like to grow up with The Dark Lord, who, it turns out, is their autistic brother Shaun. Over a period of 12 years, he refused to speak and still insists on wearing a cloak to compliment this dark persona. Written and performed autobiographically, the three sisters allow their audience to see how their relationship with Shaun has affected them as individuals.
‘Happy Spawning Anniversary!’, reads a large homemade banner. Shaun resents the word ‘birthdays’. The play is set over one evening, with the sisters coming together to celebrate their brothers 30th. This is a tradition that they embark on every year. However, Shaun refuses to take part, and so they do so on his behalf. Each of them play themselves, without holding back. They reminisce on both the good times and the bad. Then, the sisters swap memories, with some disagreements as they try to see how it is that they have managed to find the light within Shaun’s darkness.
You’ll laugh hearing unbelievable stories about the situations The Dark Lord has caused unintentionally. The action flows well and manages to show the essence of true family life, without missing their classic sibling dynamic. You also get a sense of the rivalry between them as they discuss who believes had it worse, or who it was that looked after Shaun best. Of course, the sisters have chosen to pick certain events that stand out to them (as well as those for entertainment purposes), and I can see that they would struggle to tell us everything in such a short space of time. Sometimes you don’t want to reveal it all, and there is already so much to unpack within their superb storytelling. They make you feel as if you were there.
The energy between the sisters is electric. They bounce off one another, and you can sense that they enjoy letting us into their world. There is a beautiful harmony as the trio sing a heartfelt song, and also some awkward moments when you are not sure whether to laugh or cry. Living With A Dark Lord is a captivating production that takes you on a whirlwind of what it must be like to grow up with an autistic sibling, while also making you intrigued to meet The Dark Lord himself. This is not to be missed up at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival!
Living with a Dark Lord playing at Paradise in the Vault at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival from 13-18 August. For more information and tickets, see here.
As I sit on a Bakerloo line tube on the way to the National Theatre, I can’t help but feel slightly envious. Since the National Theatre is such a prominent theatre, it is no surprise that they have such a wide selection of education and learning opportunities for young people, and, in turn, such a vast reach. As part of the New Views programme, 74 schools and colleges across the UK were given access to an online course in playwriting, see National Theatre productions and take part in workshops led by professional playwrights. Over 300 participating students aged between 14 and 19 then submitted 30 minute plays. Ten have received a staged reading while the winning play, a three day long, fully staged run at the Dorfman Theatre.
Yes envious, but full of anticipation.
At school, if we weren’t studying An Inspector Calls or The Crucible (which didn’t particularly inspire any of the 14 year-olds in my class) we were given a ‘relevant’ play. These were usually about cyber-bulling or drug use or both and were performed harnessing the power of well-choreographed block motifs, slow motion, freeze frames and thinly disguised metaphors. Not a single one of the shortlisted pieces fall into these student play clichés. They talk about grief, survivor’s guilt, gender identity, poverty, sexual abuse and Alzheimer’s. Yes, these are plays written by young people but the themes they explore are no different to those older playwrights might explore. The only difference is that some of these issues are shared using the teenage voice, through teenage characters. The idea that young people can write about issues just as well as their older counterparts, isn’t a particularly revolutionary concept. Plenty of playwrights start young, Polly Stenham, who’s adaptation of Julie is currently playing the National Theatre itself, wrote her first play, That Face, when she was only 19 years old. In 1958, aged 20, Shelagh Delaney wrote A Taste of Honey and it became a West End hit starring Angela Langsbury and Joan Plowright. Perhaps, if schools and clubs want to engage young people with theatre, they should look to their own students to create the material.
The piece that really resonates with me is the winning one, If We Were Older, by Alice Schofield. Two women lock eyes on the tube. Daisy thinks Maggie is staring at her and her girlfriend because she is uncomfortable with their homosexuality, but she couldn’t be further from the truth. Schofield’s play shows us the journey of both Maggie and Daisy as they try to navigate being teenage lesbians, fifty years apart. The poignancy of If We Were Older, is Maggie’s bittersweet joy at the present day acceptance of lesbians. Growing up in mid 20th-century England, she has to hide her sexuality. Now in her seventies, whilst happy that gay rights and equality have progressed so far since, she is sad that it couldn’t have been that way when she was younger. She has to resign herself to a lifetime of loneliness because she didn’t want her or the people she loved to get hurt. Despite the sadness of Maggie’s story the play ends on an optimistic note, with Maggie hopeful that she can find someone in 2018.
As a queer young person, I can relate to this on multiple levels. There have been many times when I’ve been out with partners or friends, seen older generations staring and it’s got my back up. Additionally, the chance to see accurate representation of my community onstage is very moving. When I think about plays with LGBT+ themes I think of Angels in America, The History Boys and The Laramie Project. I think of writers such as Oscar Wilde, Noel Coward, Tennesse Williams. All brilliant, but all male. Though there are of course queer female writers their plays don’t reach similar popularity and they rarely feature in traditional plays and much less in musicals (I challenge you to name five musical theatre lesbian protagonists). Even when queer women are seen on stage, their stories are usually limited to coming out tales. If We Were Older is deeply refreshing. There is no big ‘questioning’ storyline, no big ‘coming out’ moment to parents, no dramatic deaths (a well known lesbian trope). It is a good, old-fashioned exploration of teenage love. It is just a ‘love story’, which is what is needed in order to completely normalise and obtain equality for queer people.
Being an aspiring playwright myself, I would have loved the opportunity to take part in a programme like New Views when I was still at school. While it’s true that most of us will have read (or at least attempted to) Shakespeare’s work in English classes and probably butchered scenes from The Crucible in drama lessons, learning how to actually write a play is forced to be an extra-curricular activity. Sadly with subjects such as music and drama being squeezed out of school curriculums in favour of more ‘traditional’ and academic subjects, it would be wildly optimistic to suppose that schools would start teaching playwriting lessons. Thus the education of young people in the arts falls to playwriting schemes like New Views, initiatives like Let’s Play which engage with primary school children and charities like the Andrew Lloyd-Webber Foundation which provides free music lessons for children in London. The result of these cuts will be an even more exaggerated class-divide within the arts, with the majority of those in the industry coming from middle class backgrounds.
It is undeniable that the New Views shortlisted writers will be at an advantage if they wish to pursue playwriting in the future. As I sat on the tube on the way home enviously contemplating this, I wondered where these playwrights would be in five, ten years time. Has the New Views programme created the next generation of great British playwrights? Or is this early success too much pressure? Will their future careers live up to this experience? One thing is for sure. The programme has shown the importance of schemes which both give young people access to theatre and find and cultivate talent, because if what I have seen is anything to go by, they have a lot of it.