I am here to change the world, and if I am not, I am probably wasting my time.— U. Utah Phillips
We need a futile gesture at this stage.
It will raise the whole tone of the war.
— Peter Cook, in ‘Aftermyth of War’ (Beyond the Fringe, 1960)
“Theatre can’t change the world,” wrote Michael Billington, straight out just like that, in his glowing review of the original Royal Court production of My Name is Rachel Corrie in April 2005: and the show’s producers were happy enough to display his words outside the theatre when the play transferred to the Playhouse the following year.
To some observers, the very idea that theatre might be (or imagine itself to be) able to change the world is inherently risible, an expression of fantastic hubris and pitiful delusion on the part of egotistical writers and vainglorious actors; even to those commentators, like Billington, who firmly believe that theatre has the capacity, and perhaps the responsibility, to reflect and comment on political realities, to provoke discussion and to foster debate, it is an acceptable unvarnished truism that theatre cannot itself effect change – at least not on a scale that could plausibly be thought of as “chang[ing] the world”.
Yet to an artist like the late Utah Phillips – a singer and storyteller – and, to that extent, a theatre maker; and an activist and organizer – and, to that extent also, a theatre maker – to work with any lesser intent is, as he states, a waste of time. I tend to agree with Phillips, though I imagine I might choke a bit on so bald a piece of sloganeering (for which, let me say, I admire him and reproach myself); certainly, the degree of motivation that I feel for my work would be significantly diminished if
I ever believed for a moment that Billington’s opinion was correct. But that’s hardly a properly rigorous basis for interrogating the truth of his assertion. What I want to do in this brief coda, then, is think through some of the possible responses to Billington’s axiom – which, I should emphasize, it is hardly fair to call Billington’s alone, given that perhaps a majority of people (maybe including a majority of theatre makers, even) would share its view, many of them more categorically than perhaps Billington does – as a way of examining the premises of our work in theatre and the proportionate aims of our thought and our activity.
The most obviously facetious objection – though one not wholly without merit – is a methodological one. We can’t know whether theatre changes the world, because we don’t have a control world without theatre, against which to compare the fortunes of our own. There is a lot of theatre going on all the time, and maybe by the grace of some unseen mechanism it is this effort that’s holding up the sky. This is, perhaps, flip, but it’s not demonstrably untrue, and as such, we can be heartened by it; after all, even the most strenuous denier of anthropogenic climate change usually struggles to contradict a simple grandmotherly saw along the lines of ‘better safe than sorry’, and if theatre hasn’t the capacity to change the world, either for good or ill, then no one is seriously harmed if we continue anyway. But, admittedly, as rallying cries go, this is hardly the Internationale.
A more developed version of the same thought is this: we don’t know whether theatre can change the world because not all the results are in yet. We haven’t made all the theatre yet. We’ve barely begun to make theatre that knows how to situate itself in relation to the brutal degrading tyrannies of liminoid capitalism. Too much of our work has counted for basically nothing, because we did not dare to value it highly enough ourselves, or value ourselves highly enough in making it; we are not always confident of the righteousness of our vision, and often we are more-or-less forced into positions of complicity or insipid superficiality or hidebound conservatism in order to try and get anything done at all. Not daring to want to change the world, or (understandably) not knowing how to begin when confronted with the gigantic systemic violence of capitalism – or even with the sometimes equally overwhelming systemic weirdness or inertia of many theatre institutions and organizations, we have probably sometimes (and even in the wretched sorrow of full self- knowledge) been guilty of wasting our time, and the time of others. We have to know we can do better; meanwhile, the world doesn’t know where to look: but no, not all the results are in yet.
Another reasonable objection can be made on the basis of testimony. It depends, of course, what you mean by ‘changing the world’, but many – if not most – of us who work in and/or care about theatre would say, without hesitation, that we have been changed by theatre: that the worlds that we inhabit have been transformed, electrified, sometimes even magnificently ruined, by theatre. I think theatre has made me a better person. I think because I ‘do’ theatre, I see more thoughtfully, I think more feelingly, I listen more carefully than I otherwise would; I think I am politically and socially and sexually more radically curious because theatre has needed me to be so. I think I can be a better friend, and a better stranger, because of theatre – though often, I confess, I’m not, because theatre can also be a consuming and an interferent medium to inhabit, and an exhausting one. But above all I think theatre changes lives – and how else will we change the world, if not first by changing people and changing the relationships to which people are willing to risk exposing themselves? – because, as Tim Allen and Andrew Duncan say in relation to poetry (and to my mind this is ten times truer of the best theatre):
Attention is a pure good. What brings states of high atten- tion, is successful as art without further ado. [...] There is a circularity in the situation where someone perceives some- thing vividly because they are in a high attentional state, and are in a highly attentive state because they perceive a cognitive object or set vividly.
And if by ‘changing the world’, we want only to mean wholesale revolutionary change, and not merely our own narcissistic dabblings in the self-help section – though, again, how else will we change the world, if not first by changing ourselves and our capacity to reach others inspiringly and seductively and encouragingly? – nevertheless I would still be more than happy to begin that decisive surge towards global upheaval with nothing more in my pockets than: “Attention is a pure good.”
Most of all, though, we can insist that the question of theatre changing the world is in some degree redundant, because we know these two other things to be true: that in theatre – more clearly in theatre that knows it is incorporative – we can act, consequentially; and the world is changing anyway. The world is changing anyway and that change is coming directly towards us. Baron Tuzenbach in Three Sisters already knows this, which is why I transposed his speech of ecstatic foreboding to the very beginning of ...SISTERS, my naughty deconstruction of that play:
The times are changing, the shadows are closing in; and a great storm is gathering that will shake us all up when it finally breaks. It’s almost here; you can smell it in the air.
What you smell is the field: it’s Matt Davis’s list: “earth, rain, concrete, grass, buildings, flesh, blood, shit”: it’s the smell by which you know the difference between “puppets” and “bodies out there”. That change is coming directly towards us and the challenge that is already upon us is about acting boldly in accordance with it. How can we change with that change? How can we shape that change towards us and make it ours?
A richly interesting development in the last few years has been the emergence, via one particular research project centred on the Department of Life and Environmental Sciences at the University of Exeter, of a proposed new disciplinary praxis under the name of ‘anticipatory history’. The year-long project had as its key output a handsome and engrossing book, Anticipatory history, which is introduced by its editors, Caitlin DeSilvey and Simon Naylor, in these terms:
We are told that we are facing the real prospect of an increase in the rate and scale of environmental change in our lifetimes. [...] But the range of available responses to these changes is limited – usually cast in terms of loss and guilt – and we often do not have the cultural resources to respond thoughtfully, to imagine our own futures in a tangibly altered world.
From September 2010 to April 2011 we gathered people in a research network to explore the roles that history and story- telling play in helping us to apprehend and respond to changing landscapes, and to changes to the wildlife and plant populations they support.
Noting the important role the humanities have to play in shaping these debates, they frame the book, and its core idea, in this way:
This volume poses the term ‘anticipatory history’ as a tool to help us connect past, present and future environmental change...[and] consider how the stories we tell about ecologi- cal and landscape histories can help shape our perceptions of plausible environmental futures.
These objectives chime for me in relation to an anxiety I’ve had for many years about concertedly political theatre which seeks to ‘raise awareness’ around issues or ‘share information’ on certain topics. These tasks can certainly be important, and the pedagogical role of theatre is not necessarily to be disdained, though it needs handling with especial care; but my sense is that only seldom is the problem that we ‘don’t know’ – or, at any rate, that we don’t know enough. The real problem is that we don’t have a living-space in which to fully know what we know, in which to confront that knowledge and respond to it emotionally without immediately becoming entrenched in a position of fear, denial and hopelessness. We know, for example, a good deal (at a lay-person’s level) about climate change, and the threats that it poses to our ways of life, the rhythms and currents on which we believe we depend. It is irrational for us to continue to live as we mostly do. My suspicion is that very few people, now, are unaware of this, or genuinely sceptical about the base of evidence beneath it. I suspect the major stumbling block is that we most often receive news about these ideas – through TV and radio, online news and print media – while we’re at home, in the very place where we most want to feel secure, and the place we’re most frightened of loss, of risk, perhaps even of change in general. Don’t we need a place which is neither entirely ‘home’ or entirely ‘away’, in which to come into a more rational, speakable, sensible relationship with our fear of what we know, or think we know? Doesn’t there need to be a place in which an encounter with that knowledge can be supported? In which we can imagine change, in which we can tell the stories of the change that we anticipate lying ahead of us, and come to an understanding of those ideas in a way that makes them sites of living and breathing, not of panic, claustrophobia and denial?
I’ve been very inspired by what I’ve seen (admittedly not from close- up) in transition culture, which asks whole communities at a local level both to imagine change (in particular in relation to the challenges and opportunities of energy descent and the potential for rethinking money and economic systems) and to inhabit that change. Transition communities evidently become – have to become – very good at thinking together, at shifting the stories that get told, at creating local space in which collective change is plausibly conceivable, and in which the possibility of positive action helps to dispel the stifling atmosphere of individual fear. Recounting the events of a public meeting organized by Transition Town Totnes, transition activist Rob Hopkins writes:
... I felt very moved. There is a power here, I thought, which has remained largely untapped. Surely when we think about peak oil and climate change we should feel horrified, afraid, over- whelmed? Yet here was a room full of people who were positively elated, yet were also looking the twin challenges of peak oil and climate change in the face.
What might environmental campaigning look like if it strove to generate this sense of elation, rather than the guilt, anger and horror that most campaigning invokes?
If there is a big idea with which to end this book, an idea which does not feel instantly unequal to the rubric of ‘changing the world’, it is, necessarily, at base a very small idea: an idea smaller in its immediate civic footprint than most theatre already is. It’s simply this: theatre belongs to everybody; ideas belong to no one.
It seems to me probably true that most people, at some point in their lives, will write a poem: an adolescent nobody-understands-me poem; a roses-are-red Valentine’s card poem; a song lyric, a scurrilous limerick, a shopping list that just happens to catch the light in a different way for a moment. Many people will bake a cake, or make a fantastic tarka daal, or knock up a mojito that earns a round of applause. Almost everyone, at some point, will start a band, or whistle a happy tune; or look after an allotment or a window-box; or design their dream kitchen, or crochet a hat for a baby in the family, or build a wall – if only out of Lego; or tell someone a scintillating joke that they’re still laughing at two days later; or dance in the kitchen to Wet Wet Wet when they think no one’s watching; or make a fancy-dress costume for the dog, or read a kid a bedtime story and do all the voices and really get into it, or sing with a choir, or give someone an awesome blowjob, or get roped into joining in with a community mural, or work on their keepy-uppy skills, or make a piece of jewellery, or go for a walk in the park and feel like it’s more than just killing time. Almost everyone will do one or more of those things in their life and a few lucky people might do all of them. Almost no one will make a piece of theatre. And yet there is nothing categorical that should set theatre apart in its cultural or practical proximity by comparison with these other quotidian creative activities.
In other words, ‘we’ who make theatre, who draw its frames and assert its values, have done so in such a way as to make our friends and neighbours feel our ownership of it as prohibitive, so that that ownership does not seem to them a shareable condition, but rather a special one. Despite (or, maybe, because of) our widespread sense of professional precariousness, our own sense of exclusion and alienation within our industry and our art, we have made the territory of our active work feel strange and intractable. In particular – and perhaps this is, now, more an inherited problem than one of our own making; or perhaps not – we have signalled ‘our’ investment of an excess of cultural capital in buildings and in apparatus: in the ‘trappings’ for which, from the other side, live and visual artists despise us, or, worse, condescend to us: the plush, the velvet, the gilt, the swishy curtains (all of which, of course, have little to do in fact with the working lives of most theatre makers now); in the specialist equipment, the cliquey language, the overpriced drinks, the dark, the shushing. The associations that these elements have – of status, luxury, sumptuousness, poshness – also continue to assert themselves in situations where they’re absent: uninitiated audiences coming to fringe theatres where I’ve been working are not uncommonly disappointed to see only rickety chairs and a makeshift design and lukewarm organic beer. What’s wrong? Aren’t we good enough, perhaps they think, for them to make the effort for the likes of us?
I do still believe that the civic function of theatre can be well-served by big (or small), accessible, exciting, multi-use buildings at the heart of their communities: by major metropolitan spaces hosting world-class events; by buzzing regional arts centres programming small scale touring work alongside shows for family audiences alongside stand-up comedy or folk music or literary events; by the village halls and community centres served by rural touring networks, who might only have four theatre shows in a year but who manage to fold that work into the same story that brings local residents to that venue for political hustings or jumble sales. When a theatre building can genuinely serve as a centre of gravity for bringing people into encounters with new people and new ideas (or fresh relationships with old people and old ideas), and if it can do so in such a way that the people on the inside of the building look pretty much like the people in the street outside, I’m certain it still has a fundamentally important role to play.
But I’ve made enough shows for performance in people’s homes – having struggled for years to raise any money at all for my work, and then, after a bit, finding I really liked doing those shows anyway – to know that theatre depends on absolutely nothing other than the generous attention of those who come together in a place to make something happen. Perhaps that attention can be shaped, choreographed a little: a table lamp here, a clutch of tea lights there; a bit of Vaughan Williams or Frank Ocean on the living room stereo, or the shipping forecast on the kitchen radio, or the window open to the street outside; a little food to share, maybe; a cat in the room, if nobody’s allergic. Maybe someone tells a story, sings a song; maybe everybody does; maybe there’s origami skills to pass on, or a conversation to have about some super-local issue that will never attract the attention of the council, or maybe everyone draws on everyone else’s body with felt tip pens, or we all read The Admirable Crichton or Amiri Baraka’s Experimental Death Unit 1. There might be a part called ‘the notices’. We might just all ask each other, “How are you?”, and then listen, really listen, to the answer. Maybe we all just admire the cat, try to be more like her.
What if going to the theatre meant going there, to that house down the road? Paying a couple of quid to cover the costs, or taking flowers, and being prepared for there to be hardly any difference between doing and watching? It might sound nice – or it might sound to you like an unconscionable nightmare. How, then, would you change it? What would be on offer if people came round to your place instead? Or what if, instead of changing your neighbour’s event, you changed your mind about what you might want from an evening out?
And how, in the end, how on earth do we get from the changing of a mind in relation to some mild shenanigans three doors down, to changing the world? Well, how else: firstly, by adapting the events we make and the events we attend until they start to really change us, really change our week, our rhythms, our daydreams in the bath, our family outings, our fights with our lovers, the feel of our bodies when we get dressed in the mornings, what we think about time, what we think about voting, how we feel when someone asks us for money in the street. We make those events help to make that change. And then secondly, we make sure that, once a fortnight at least, there’s someone on every street who’s making their kitchen or their garage or the bit of common ground in front of their estate into a theatre for the evening. We make sure that everyone knows someone who does that, or who goes, and who swears by it. We let the relief show in our faces. We organise things so that the kids can play out more. We introduce the theatre-making people on every street to the people on the next street who are doing the same things, or really different things, and we share what we’re finding out. And we let it change us, change how we are with each other: and maybe after a while there’s someone on every street every night of the week, or in the morning, say, for the people who work nights or want to take their little kids along. And maybe once in a while, for a change, everyone goes to a professional theatre, to see if there’s anything there that’s worth copying or learning from or that makes us feel better about what we’re doing instead.
And these front-room and bedroom and up-on-the-roof theatres become a network; then a mesh; then a fabric. And there are still some lucky people whose job it is to ‘make theatre’: and some of them will still work as they always have, doing plays and shows in the civic buildings; some of them will still work way upstream, in the studio laboratories and the institutional research spaces; and some of them will be the ones who help to make the domestic theatre happen, who have the craft skills to help everyone make their own events as brilliant as they can, and the organizational skills to help make connections across the neighbourhood and off into the distance.
In 2011, I made a participatory storytelling show called Keep Breathing, in which I invited members of the public to give me a message for the world that could be spoken in the length of a single breath. The piece made a quiet, unagitated case for activism, especially in relation to local issues: and instead of a programme, we made a little one-sheet pocket zine for everyone to take away, which was full of information (with corresponding web links and book lists) about how we’d made the show – where everything had come from, the stories, the music, the practical resources – and encouraged readers to think about making their own theatre piece, after the example of my own, which was exceedingly lo- fi and exhibited no specialist virtuosity really apart from the elegance of Naomi Dawson’s set design and Kristina Hjelm’s constellation-like lighting. The idea of the zine was inspired by reading in Simon Reynolds’s excellent Rip It Up and Start Again: Post-punk 1978-1984 about the sleeve of one of my favourite singles of that period, Scritti Politti’s ‘Skank Bloc Bologna’:
On the photocopied sleeve, they went one better than [The Desperate Bicycles] in the demystification stakes, itemizing the complete costs of recording, mastering, pressing, printing the labels and so on, along with contact numbers for companies who provided these services.
I’m sure many upstart bands must have been not only inspired but practically aided by that sleeve. Whether anyone took my zine (and the show) seriously enough to make anything of their own, I don’t know. In terms of the broader scenario of people everywhere making their own homegrown theatre, I seriously like the movement I’m describing; I have no idea how plausible it is – but perhaps that isn’t the very first thing that matters. I like it because it is manifestly anticapitalist in its operations (and it’s easy to imagine those who try to monetise it soon finding that they’re talking to no one), but also, in a way, not really anti- anything. What I’m describing is an impulse to positive action – to doing rather than not-doing – simply because, when we allow ourselves to stop suppressing our desire and our anger and our hopes and fears, stop distracting ourselves from our pain and our doubt and our gladness (despite everything) to be alive and together, it is easier to do something with that impetus than to not do something. To get home after work and feel crushed and watch the TV and vaguely dislike everything and go to bed unhappy and unfulfilled is not easy; it is hard. To use theatre as a way of getting something done, getting something properly loved that is as big as the field you are standing before: that, given the chance, is easy. And it’s a rush. John Holloway makes it plain:
We are presented with a pre-existing capitalism that dictates that we must act in certain ways, and to this we reply ‘no, there is no pre-existing capitalism, there is only the capital- ism that we make today, or do not make’. And we choose not to make it. Our struggle is to open every moment and fill it with an activity that does not contribute to the reproduction of capital. Stop making capitalism and do something else, something sensible, something beautiful and enjoyable. Stop creating the system that is destroying us. We only live once: why use our time to destroy our own existence? Surely we can do something better with our lives. Revolution is not about destroying capitalism, but about refusing to create it.
As I re-type John Holloway’s words, my heart beats a little faster: but also I feel in my body the doubt, the shortfall – not in response to this passage in particular, but in ending the making of this book. I have to tell you – I don’t suppose you’ll be surprised – that most of the theatre I make, on whatever scale, with whatever support, whichever partners, most of what I make is far from fulfilling the promise that I’ve tried to describe. It is not always, not even mostly, exemplary; it is (almost, but not quite, hopelessly) tangled up in all of the systems I came to this place to resist.
And I have to tell you also that I saw a show last night, at a major venue in London where the seats are expensive and the stage is somewhat raised, and I think it was probably the best thing I’ve ever seen. And it was partly field, and partly forest; it was by no means refusing liminality, but it was setting it to work; no one on stage got naked, but lots of people got half-naked; it was noisy but it was also intensely lucid and its signals feel imprinted on my life today. All of which tells me that some of what I’ve said here is probably right, and much is probably wrong, and when I’m next in a rehearsal room, in a few days’ time, the questions will all still be unanswered.
Before that, I have a meeting with a longtime collaborator in a venue where I’ve spent some very happy and some very difficult times over the past few years; where I’ve been bold, and scared, and highly attentive, and never for a moment bored. It’s a venue hardly anyone knows about; the work I’ve shown there, when it’s been shown to anyone, has had audiences of a dozen, maybe, or half a dozen, or maybe just one man and a spider (for real): and some of that work, I count among the best work I’ve ever done, the most radical, the most changeful; the work of which I think I can be most proud.
Sometimes, walking in there, or walking out, I have thought of the words attributed to the anthropologist Margaret Mead (and quoted, needless to say, in an episode of The West Wing). Never doubt, she said, that a small group of thoughtful, committed people can change the world. It’s the only thing that ever has.