After hosting five theatre Masterclasses at New Perspectives (Jan 2014 – April 2015), I suddenly feel inspired to write about them. In each one there was something special going on, a kind of glow shared by the people who attended. And looking back at them, the Masterclasses as a whole form something of a cohesive experience. These were a lot more than simply an exchange of skills or ideas. They were encounters that together have offered a rare opportunity to rethink theatre from the ground up. Picking the leaders is almost as precise as selecting our programme of touring theatre. It has to be just the right person, just the right subject, just the right time. In each case we seek out a practitioner who plays by their own rules, who has a way of seeing theatre in exactly their way and has fought to preserve that. Yet in addition to this, a crucial feature is that the practitioners have an openness – a sense of still searching and learning, looking and listening. These sessions were never about dogma or self-promotion. They were a space for both practitioner and participant to think deeply and together about this strange practise we devote ourselves to.
We hold Masterclasses in our downstairs rehearsal room. I have come to view it is an ideal space. A grey and white concrete room with fluorescent lighting, blank and tonally quite cold. Good that it’s not too warm. This is not a space to lounge about in, but rather one to instil a certain clean focus. It’s much better being in a space like this to think about theatre than in an actual theatre space. We don’t need to see unused lights above us, or markings from past shows on the floor, and certainly not rows of empty seats. We’re not here to be reminded of the practicalities of theatre making or the pressures of performance. The room is the space equivalent of a blank page. Neither beautiful nor ugly, but totally unobtrusive and open to possibility. Between them, our Masterclass leaders spanned over fifty years of experimental theatre practise. All of them still very much working today, perhaps even making their most challenging work yet. David Rudkin for example, who shook up the theatre establishment in the early sixties with his first play Afore Night Come, has recently finished a new piece of theatre for satellite navigation. Each one of the Masterclass leaders used the room to reduce theatre to its basics; presence, shape, words, play. Past experience became largely irrelevant, what mattered was present thinking. It would have been out of place to sit writing notes throughout these sessions. So rather than recount journalistically what happened in each one, I offer a quick, subjective impression provoked by each of the artists.
“What is happening?” rather than “I see what is happening.” One type of theatre says, “don’t worry, it will all become clear” and another type of theatre says, “worry” (my words not Terry’s). Theatre of pure presence. A body or bodies. A room. An entrance or repeated entrances. A question or list of questions. The effect of repeated exposure to presence. The reward of continual uncertainty.
Liberation through formal restriction. Beautiful accidents appearing through imposed restrictions on language. Many practitioners and companies impose their radicalism onto a text, whereas Tim funnels it through his text from the start, creating works that as a result become almost self-directing. Non-literal transportation through language, for example, his play about a raised arm when no arm is raised during the performance, and yet audience members swear it was raised throughout. All plays set in the space and time of their performance.
David uses the word space, never stage. His sense of theatre is exact, austere – utterly precise. After meditating on the empty space, he asks what “emblems” we might place in it. Rudkin tends to favour as few as possible – usually just the body will do. There is the outer space (performed) and the space within (imagined). Once we clear the inner space through intense concentration we then observe the images that appear in it unaided. We cannot evoke them, they must come of their own accord. Only then do we know they are essential.
Explored a rejection of this word ‘interactive’ (the title of our class). Coney play or they make adventures. The rules of playing/ composing becomes the dramaturgy. They consider the links between a classroom chasing game and the structure of a large-scale performance. A manifesto is set for each project to govern what the rules are, how it can be made or played, which also serves as a useful line for editing ideas: “That is not in the manifesto”.
I am here. This is me, and I am fine. Everyone is a performer, and no one is of greater value onstage than any other. Presence, togetherness, elimination of barriers (usually self-consciousness). When lifting a chair into position just do it, but do it beautifully. Not a beauty that wants to be beautiful, but a beauty of simple clarity and a full, practised awareness of space and time.
So… Theatre exists everywhere and can be made or embodied by anyone or anything. A physical space isn’t always needed, nor even are living actors (though both can be helpful). What makes theatre is a live tension between the thing and the person/people observing that thing. But as all-pervasive as it may be, theatre is never easy. In fact it seems to demands a lifetime of rethinking and reshaping. Our Masterclass leaders have all done so restlessly and no doubt will continue to in the years to come. It was a rare joy to spend time with them as we tried to rediscover this mysterious art form’s essential spirit.