Magnetic North Blog

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How far is too far?

I went to see Tim Crouch’s The Author today at the Traverse.  I had already read the play so was aware of what the play was about (and I shall do my best not to give anything away for anyone who hasn’t seen it), but I was still surprised at the sheer discomfort of watching it.  To say that the performance unsettles the audience is an understatement – one person left after 5 minutes and there was a steady flow throughout, with a mass emigration in the last five minutes (including one man who left singing “Some day my prince will come”) – but this is clearly a calculated risk and something that is, paradoxically, important to the production.  I talked briefly with Tim afterwards and he said that this was the largest number of walk-outs they’d had, but that there were always some and that during one performance in London he was threatened with physical violence. 

So what is it that has this effect?  I was certainly discomfited by the performance, but I knew I was in a theatre watching a show and I knew that the character Tim Crouch was playing – who is also called Tim Crouch – was not the same as the ‘real’ Tim Crouch.  To some extent, I think it is the identification of the audience as a character and the complicity that this carries.  Some people want to sit in the dark and have the actors behave as if they’re not being watched.  This is, of course, a relatively recent phenomenon dating back no further than the 19th century when Richard Wagner decided to turn the houselights out at Bayreuth.  Before this the audience were very much part of the show (literally in some cases as seats would sometimes be on the stage itself).  Tim Crouch takes this a stage further and actively seeks out the audience’s approval throughout the performance - “Is this OK?”, “Shall I carry on?” he and the other actors ask of us regularly.  As I mentioned before, he blurs the lines further by playing a character called Tim Crouch, an award-winning playwright with a play on at the Royal Court (where this production originated), all the actors play characters with the same names and the character Tim’s fictional wife has the same name as the real Tim’s.  So far so Paul Auster, but Crouch not only makes his character morally dubious, he also avoids the common actor’s trick of trying to make his character likeable.  His character makes no attempt to defend what he has done, he presents it to us in order that we might form our own opinion.  In doing this, he makes the audience in some way complicit and I think this is an incredibly brave thing to do.  In many ways, the performance needs at least some people to walk out because this acknowledges the way it empowers the audience.  Yet this act of empowerment is easily mistaken – one critic from a smart Sunday paper gloriously misunderstood the central motif of Tim’s earlier play An Oak Tree as narcissism rather than recognising that it was the very opposite.  (In An Oak Tree the second actor is played by someone new every night, they knew nothing about the play in advance and only met Tim shortly before the performance starts – during the performance they are given lines to read, or fed them through an ear piece.  The critic in question mistook this for narcissistic control rather than recognising the surrender to chance.)

But this is what happens when people operate on the borders, they leave themselves open to misinterpretation, but thank goodness for Tim Crouch – we need people like him to ask questions and make us feel uncomfortable.  Did I enjoy The Author?  I don’t think I could say that, but would I recommend it to others?  Absolutely.

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Shouting and Pointing

I used to have a tape of songs from Hollywood movies that I would listen to in the car and at one point I developed a theory that the difference between good and bad art could be summed up by the difference between Al Jolson singing Mammy and Gene Kelly singing Singing in the Rain (I was doing a lot of driving at the time).  Jolson is all ham and razzmatazz, he tries so hard to show you he really means it that I always feel like he doesn’t mean a word of it and by the time he slows right down to sing “I’d walk a million miles for one of your smiles (big gulp) my ma (big swoop) aaa mmy (pointless flourish on last note)” you feel like crying for all the wrong reasons. Gene Kelly, on the other hand, is so light that he leaves space for the listener (or viewer if you’re watching the film) to share the experience, rather than bludgeoning them into submission.

I have been reminded of this by the publication of a fascinating sounding book called Michelangelo’s Finger by Raymond Tallis.  In it, Professor Tallis discusses why pointing, so apparently simple, is actually an incredibly complicated and transcendent act. I half-heard him talking about it on Start The Week while I was getting ready to leave for work a few weeks ago, and then came across a mention of the book in The Guardian a little later. The central thesis of the book, as I understand it, is that, although the act of pointing is apparently simple, it is an incredibly complicated and culturally vital activity.  What caught my ear on the radio was Tallis’s notion that the act of pointing implies that the person who sees you pointing will understand that there is something of interest to look at and that this implies a shared sense of culture, which defines humanity.  I remember hearing Stephen Fry point out the futility of pointing in the direction of a thrown stick to a dog because the dog will look at the finger rather than the stick, but it had never occurred to me how important this is. Imagine, every time you point at something, you are confirming your humanity by placing your self in a transcendent “other” place.

I love the idea that the essence of humanity can be iterated by such a simple action. It seems to me that art, at its best, tells us something about how we live.  Bad art merely tries to provoke an emotion in the passive viewer/listener/reader, good art provokes a stream of thoughts and sensations the end result of which may or may not be emotional.  In rehearsals or in preparing a production, we are often trying to find the simplest and most direct ways to communicate ‘the thing’ that the play is about (and discovering what ‘the thing’ is in the first place is one of the hardest parts of the process).  Many of the greatest plays find an apparently simple metaphor that perfectly captures a more complex idea (the storm at the beginning of The Tempest, Willie Loman’s job as a salesman), but the idea that our innate humanity can be summed up by one gesture is so breathtakingly, beautifully simple that it takes my breath away in the way that Al Jolson never could.    

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Archetypal stories again..

Last week I heard two programmes on Radio 4 within the space of an hour which seemed strongly connected and set me thinking. First, I heard Peter Brook talking about his new production 11 and 12 (on at Tramway in April) on Start the Week.  There has always seemed to be something quite elemental in Brook’s work – a search for some basic truths of life that has seen him explore some of the great world myths and stories, including The Mahabharata, as well as head of on a journey through Africa with a group of actors in the 1970s.  Brook is always fascinating to hear because he has such a restless, inquiring mind – always exploring, never satisfied but always defining interesting points on the journey.  As a side note, he was particularly interesting about politicians and the common belief that they lie to us.  Like any actor, he said, a politician can only be convincing if he or she believes absolutely in what he or she is saying. To me, this idea is much more interesting than assuming that, say, Tony Blair lied about Iraq.


Immediately after the programme came A History of the World in 100 Objects – British Museum director Neil McGregor’s new series which aims to do exactly what the title suggests.  The item under discussion was an Assyrian clay tablet more than two and half thousand years old. In 1872, only a dozen years after The Origin of Species had been published, a story startlingly similar to the Biblical story of the Flood, but much older, was found on this tablet.  The man who translated it and realised its significance was an autodidact named Charles Smith who was apparently so excited by his discovery that he began to dance around the room stripping off his clothes, to the understandable alarm of those in the room with him. This discovery caused some difficulty for the religious (and continues to do so for those of a fundamentalist persuasion) because it seemed to contradict the idea that the bible was the word of God.  Was God perhaps a plagiarist?


The answer is that there are some stories that are so fundamental and important that they will continue to be retold and reinvented (Rabbi Jonathan Sacks makes the argument that there is a fundamental difference in the intention of the two stories). The flood myth that appears in the epic of Gilgamesh appears in many civilisations.  These stories are mythical in the best sense of the word, which to me suggests something that is fundamental to our understanding of life rather than untrue.  There is actually something unnervingly truthful about great myths, which I suppose is why they survive, they seem to make us understand something about ourselves without us necessarily completely understanding what it is – more like an intuition. This gets to the heart of what I think art should do – make us sense something about ourselves without necessarily understanding what it is that we now understand. 


Peter Brook’s restless search has seen him continue to work into his 80s and he seems to tap into that same sense of indefinable truth that myths contain.  Although 11 and 12 has had a mixed response, it will still be fascinating to see his latest thoughts.

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Archetypal stories

I recently took my four old son to see Up, the new Pixar film.  It's very good - well written, beautifully (and expensively) made and very sophisticated in that rather slick way that Pixar seems to have nailed for making films that work just as well for both adults and children.  The opening of the film is an astonishing montage sequence that tells the life story of the central character Carl - voiced by Ed Asner - from his first boyhood meeting with his future wife Ellie to his present status as grumpy old widower in five minutes of beautifully observed animation.

The real story then begins, but everything in the opening sequence is necessary to our understanding of the rest of the film.  Without spoiling things for anyone who might be planning to see the film, I'll just say that there are several action sequences later on in the film that involve savage dogs. My son got quite upset at these scenes - particularly a night-time one where Carl, his young companion Russell and their canine companion are surrounded by the dogs, who are all under the malevolent control of the antagonist Charles Muntz (Christopher Plummer).  I reassured my son that everything would be alright in the end and we settled down again, but the final showdown on the top of an airship was too much for him and we had to leave – him in floods of tears, me wanting to know how the inevitable ending would be played out. "Up" was clearly following a traditional narrative in which good would triumph over evil – Muntz would be defeated and Carl would find a new place to live - and we were at the stage of the final complication before the denouement.  But why would my son know this?  Archetypal story structure is clearly something that has to be learned, however inherent it may appear.  There are certain rules that must be followed for a satisfying narrative - and there is something satisfying about a well-told traditional narrative – and storytellers know that they mess with these rules at their peril.  It would be inconceivable for Muntz to triumph – there would riots in the cinema.  The skill in working with  archetypal genres is keeping us engaged with how the inevitable ending will be achieved.  We know that Gary Cooper will have to win the shoot-out in "High Noon" and that Catherine Bennet will have to marry Mr Darcy, but we don’t know how it will happen. Robert McKee has observed that satisfying films always have a scene that is made inevitable in the minds of the audience by an early occurrence – the showdown between Robert Shaw and the shark in "Jaws" has to happen from the moment he scrapes his nails down the blackboard.

I was telling a friend of mine (who also happens to be a storyteller) about the incident in the cinema and we got talking about context. He told me about some students who had told him that they had been to see “United 93” (about the hijacked plane that crashed on 9/11) with someone who hadn’t realised the context and was completely devestated by the ending – he had assumed this was a straightforward good v. evil film in which, whatever the odds, good would triumph in the end. 

Archetypal stories are a source of fascination for me, and Bruno Bettelheim writes persuasively  in “The Uses of Enchantment” about their purpose in fairy tales. Archetypes are necessary for us to discover things about the world and to understand how it works: we need the stories to answer the questions we don’t even consciously realise we have - Bettelheim was a  Freudian after all -  and what better way to find the answers than listen to stories?


(If you haven’t seen Up, find an excuse and go and see it - you can see trailers for it here http://www.apple.com/trailers/disney/up/.  If you’re interested in archetypes, try Bettelheim’s “The Uses of Enchantment” or Joseph Crane’s “The Hero with a Thousand Faces”; Robert McKee’s book on structure “Story” is very interesting, though primarily about film structure.)


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The cult of collaboration

In his review of choreographer Rafael Bonachela's new work The Land of Yes and the Land of No in The Observer Luke Jennings makes an interesting observation on collaboration.  His main point is connected with what he percieves as the lack of subject matter in much contemporary dance, but what interested me most was this observation:

"Bonachela is a generous, postmodern soul, who likes to spread the creative kudos and the subsidy money around, but the hard truth is that art is not a democracy. Multiple layers of collaboration don't generate multiple layers of meaning, and in this case they serve only to obscure, and to distance us from the quiet detail that is Bonachela's forte."

It was particularly the phrase "art is not a democracy" that intrigued me.  I spend a lot of time thinking about collaboration and how it works, not least because theatre is at its heart a collaborative art.  There has been a very clear move towards more collaborative modes of development over the last few years - partly, I think, because of an unease about hierarchy - though collaboration has always been there.  Diaghilev was a consumate creator of collaborations.  The phrase that always comes to my mind is Pierre Boulez's definition of a conductor as "a collaborator who decides" (quoted, I think, by Peter Brook though I can't find the reference right now) - I often repeat this to the young directors I work with at Glasgow University as it neatly sums up a director's role.

But Jennings raises the question of whether collaboration is necessarily a good thing, whereas current orthodoxy tends to hold that it is.  I think of myself as an instinctive collaborator, whereas there are other directors who find it difficult.  When I was working as a staff director in the 1990s, I worked with someone who is now one of the foremost opera directors in the world and he almost defiantly disliked collaboration.  He prefered to design his own productions, and when he couldn't, worked with designers who would realise his vision.  Collaboration for him meant everyone listening and  then doing what they were told and, crucially, doing it very well.  This director made sure he worked with top notch people, even though he didn't particularly want then to bring their ideas.  This was (and is) a technique that works well for him, but others prefer to draw together the ideas of those they work with.  I remember reading an interview with Tim Albery about a production of Macbeth he had done for the RSC and he described sitting reading the paly with the designer and seeing what evolved (the designer was Stewart Laing I think).  Wonderfull as this sounds, it is a surprisngly rare thing - too often meetings are hurried, constrained by everyone's availability.

The perfect collaboration, I've heard it said, is when you can't remember who suggested what.  My most recent production, Walden, was certainly the best collaboration I've ever had.  Part of this came from working with visual artists who didn't have the usual database of thearical solutions to draw on - this is not a dig at designers, just an observation that "theatre people" (myself included) have particular ways of looking at things, drawn from experience and tradition and sometimes its helpful to work with people who question the obvious solutions.  Mainly though it worked as a collaboration because we respected each other's work and opinions.

The real "elephant in the room" to use Jennings's rather tiresome phrase, is the question of who decides.  In an article on collaboration in The Guardian a few months ago, Katie Mitchell said of her collaboration with Leo Warner that "It's clear I'm the boss".  Daniel Kramer notes that "leaving the ego outside the room is a huge challenge", whereas his collaborator says more bluntly "the first week of working together was traumatic".  This is the real challenge and probably the thing that defeats more promising collaborations than anything else - go too far towards democracy and it looks a mess, go too far the other way and everyone's work is subverted to one vision.  There's no one solution, it's different for every group - I'm about to embark on our uber-collaborative Rough Mix programme, and one of its aims is to promote collaboration and it'll be aprocess of finding out all over again how to help a group of individuals work together.


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Latest Comment

J. Sharp Taking A Walk
07 September 2014
Very much enjoyed your show at the Brunton Theatre last night and the silent walk to start was an excellent addition, creating the perfect atmosphere....