Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Theatre's civil war?

On The Guardian Theatre Blog, Andrew Haydon argues that the real battle being waged in theatre is not left versus right, but "between traditional and new forms of work." The traditional revolves around the writer and director, Haydon states, while the new... Well, Haydon doesn't really define that except as being "non-mainstream" and "innovative".

He does, however, link to a blog post by Chris Goode, who quotes comments made by Royal Court Artistic Director, Dominic Cooke:
"With the formally inventive companies like Punchdrunk or Shunt, I'm always impressed by the exploration of theatrical language. But the challenge is to ally that to rich content. To get those two things working together, you need a writer. Explorations of space are always more interesting when they're linked to an argument or a provocation or an idea."
While Goode despairs at this viewpoint, arguing that notions of a single writer for a theatrical piece are not always valid and that form can be as important as content, it's surely worth bearing in mind that the Royal Court is a new writing theatre.

Other theatres such as the Young Vic (which now offers no commissions to writers) are certainly not beholden to the idea of the writer's centrality and it was the National, remember, that commissioned Punchdrunk's Masque Of The Red Death. Such companies are hardly excluded from the mainstream.

However, while Haydon calls this argument a "near civil war currently raging in British theatre", I'm not sure that it's a subject that worries most writers. As David Edgar said at a recent Guild event, there have been forecasts of the end of traditional playwright-generated theatre since the sixties and it's still with us.

Of course, playwrights want opportunities to have work commissioned and performed. But the enemy is not, surely, new forms and approaches (many of which writers find stimulating to their own theatrical imaginations) but lack of funding and the kind of conservatism that works against new or challenging work of any kind.

Update (14/11/2007): David Edgar touches on this subject again in an article about the Dorchester Community Play Association in today's Guardian.
Community theatre not only challenges the division between performer, spectator, professional and amateur, but also between the two schools of postwar British theatre that are often placed in contention. Ever since I've been in the business, there has been a persistent chant from academics and critics, some claiming that visually based, site-specific, non-text-based performance theatre is about to take over; others praying that one day these two wings of postwar theatre might unite. Well, brilliant though they can be, I don't think Desperate Optimists, Forced Entertainment or even Kneehigh are going to displace theatre based on the written text. But if you were looking for one specific site where those two strands had, like the tributaries of a river, flowed into each other and mingled, then it would be the community play.

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