Can performances connect with audiences in traditional theatre spaces even when the fourth wall is broken?

The performances I chose to consider were Michael Pinchbeck’s The End, Frantic Assembly’s Beautiful Burnout and Starving Artists Take me With You. These three different performances I saw over consecutive days, each had many similarities but if you were to put them into artistic practice categories, then I think they would all be different. Each show was created and rehearsed to go on tour but irrespective of which practice category they would fall into, I saw each performance within a traditional space. The End at the Roland Levinsky Theatre (Plymouth University’s theatre space), Beautiful Burnout in the main Theatre Royal Plymouth and Take Me With You in the small studio space at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol. The audience for all three was end on.

I am sure that each performance has had to adapt and re configure for various spaces on the touring schedule and not every space would be end on. The one main problem I had with all of them was that I was positive I would have had a better overall experience had I been in a different spatial configuration, as an audience member.

To begin with The End at the Roland Levinsky theatre – a theatre that is primarily a lecture theatre and that certainly retains that aura not helped by the décor of flat brown on brown with 2 purple curtains giving us a nod to colour before rows of blacks to cover the fact that there is no wing space – the performer alluded to this.

Michael Pinchbeck, who created The End is, according to the British Council “an award-winning writer, live artist and performance maker based in Nottingham, Pinchbeck uses autobiography as a means to illustrate loss and explore absence and presence and aims to challenge the boundaries of text, performance and installation by reliving memories and revisiting real-life events.” (http://dramaanddance.britishcouncil.org/artists-and-companies/profiles/michael-pinchbeck/).

This description certainly categorizes him and puts him, in my mind, in the ‘performance artist’ mold, indeed without reading this description I had already made a similar decision about his disciplinarity from the theatre brochure. ‘Michael Pinchbeck’s last piece for theatre asks why we perform and how we will know when to stop”. Of all of the three pieces I would presume that this performance could be viewed in many spaces, it has no set as such but a microphone, a couple of blocks, a couple of bear suits and a lot of paper. Michael repeatedly breaks the fourth wall by talking directly to the audience and also by handing bits of paper to the people on the front row. His younger fellow performer even mimes the fourth wall across the front of the stage. By repeating and re examining certain aspects of the text he quite cleverly manipulates the structure so that we keep returning to the same points, sometimes by changing the performer.

‘elegantly structured, thought-provoking and coolly resonant’; Exuent magazine

‘beautifully structured post-modernist piece; the Guardian 

‘It’s a sweet piece of meta-theatre’; What’s on Stage

These critiques are interesting in their own right, it’s like the discipline of ‘performance’ allows a different set of terminology to be used, post-modernist, meta theatre, cool! I could agree with them all but I wonder how and where those reviewers saw the performance, did they see it in a University lecture theatre or in a studio space or a black box? And do those surroundings colour the way you interact with the performance. I personally felt quite cut off, I wanted to look him in the eye when he was asking questions to the audience and I sometimes felt that the piece was pertinent enough for me to talk back, but I felt that my behavioural expectations were different within a traditional environment.

The second performance Beautiful Burnout by Frantic Assembly –was again in a proscenium arch theatre. Over the years Frantic Assembly have grown a strong following for their style of work, when they speak about themselves they say they createthrilling, energetic and unforgettable theatre’. They constantly use the term ‘theatre’ and hardly use the word ‘dance’ or ‘performance’ even though their work is not traditional and very much inspired through the discipline of dance.

The show, about five young fighters as they aim for the bright lights, away from Glasgow’s streets is played upon a boxing ring and each of the characters at some point break the fourth wall and talk directly to the audience, although they wouldn’t have seen most of the audience as the proscenium lights would have blocked them out.

I sat on the third row of the stalls and yet felt strangely removed from the action. It didn’t help that the boxing ring was a good three-feet off the floor of the stage so that I was looking up at the actors and couldn’t even see their feet – pretty useless for a piece that uses movement and dance. I’m sure that when it was first performed the audience would have sat around the ring just like a fight audience and they would’ve felt part of the pulsating action. In fact I know this happened because according to Exeunt magazine

This is a great piece of storytelling that throbs with energy, but playing as it did in the main house, at times it felt too far removed, too much like spectacle; when it premiered in Edinburgh in 2010, it was staged in the round, with the audience on three sides, which must have been mesmerizing – to feel the heat of physical exertion, to hear the panting breaths, must have only heightened the intensity of the characters’ desperate ambition.(exeuntmagasine.com).

I’ve seen a lot of Frantic Assembly shows in the Drum Theatre Plymouth and felt so much more intimate with the company and the play but as their fan base grew and their shows grew with it, their spatial demands had to be met and so they went from a black box studio to a traditional proscenium arch theatre and I think lost something in doing so.

Finally Take Me With You by Starving Artists at the Tobacco Factory in Bristol is, a simple piece of storytelling. Over twenty years Starving Artists have created simple small shows that tackle gay and queer issues in California and Hawaii. The themes are universal but there’s a mythology within the Hawaiian settings that add to the quality of the story telling. Here, two actors, a bare stage (bar one chair) with beautiful lighting to act as the set, it feels like the ideal play to tour with. I saw it in a black box studio that seats about 75 to 100 people so pretty intimate and yet I still felt removed and wanted to be with them up close, yes I chose to sit near the back quite high up so I was looking down on them and maybe I should have sat at the front. Of all the shows this was the most intimate but, I know it will be playing theatres that in my opinion, will be too big for it and the audience, on that night, will not see it in the best light.

In the book The Turning World, stories from the International Festival of Theatre, Lyn Gardner says ‘LIFT recognized something that British theatre had previously ignored: that the audience brings as much to the performance as the actors do, that without our contribution there can be no theatre.’ This book is looking at work across the city of London from 1981 – 2004 and eight years later I do wonder if companies think about their audience and how their spatial relationship to the performance will affect them. I realize, for example that it would be hard to find a space in every city on tour that could accommodate a full size boxing ring with space for an audience around it.  In the 1980’s and 90’s some theatre companies toured their shows in pop up mobile auditoria, the Royal Exchange in Manchester and the Royal Shakespeare Company being two of them. This enabled the performance to be re produced and repeated in every venue exactly as it was created in its original space, therefore bringing audiences, away from the company’s home, an equal opportunity to see the play as it was intended. Seeing as the Arts Council has now got money for theatres to improve the structure of the building maybe they should also think about the type of shows that are now being toured and whether traditional spaces are the right place for them. Maybe studio spaces should be more adaptable with their seating so they can accommodate the many varieties of touring companies, whether you categorize them as ‘theatre’ or ‘performance’ and then the audience may start to get a better spatial experience.

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