Text – what is it good for? This was the question underpinning Catherine Love and Caitlin Hobb’s Are We On The Same Page? Approaches to Text and Performance symposium. Hosted in conjunction with Royal Holloway’s theatre department and aptly situated in the purpose-built Caryl Churchill Theatre, the symposium set out to ‘look beyond the schism’ of the text-based versus non-text based divide in contemporary British theatre. The overarching theme of the day was marked by antagonisms real and imagined; antagonisms between literary and performance cultures; antagonisms between conflicting approaches to criticism; antagonisms between theory and practice and – most interestingly – antagonisms between scholarship and creativity. Indeed, this being a theatre symposium, such battles were waged between the judicious nibbling of finely sliced tuna sandwiches, copious amounts of tea (strictly off limits in Royal Holloway’s purpose built auditorium, of course) and polite chitter-chatter in the sun kissed, leafy quad of the university’s Egham campus. Nevertheless, this attempt to reconcile the ‘source of friction within British theatre’ was one defined totally by oppositions – some theoretical, others practical, some real, others imagined.
The day’s events began with a conversation with Tim Crouch of The Author (Royal Court) and An Oak Tree (NT) fame. Indeed, Crouch was a fitting choice to commence a day of discussion on the veracity of text in British theatre culture. The text as artifact is pivotal to much of Crouch’s work; the on-stage presence of the play-text in productions as An Oak Tree – which involve one unrehearsed actor performing ‘on-book’ alongside Crouch for the duration of the performance – draws our attention to the authored nature of the work itself, as well as complicating our relationship with the diegesis of the on-stage world. Rather than serving as a blueprint or manuscript for performance, Crouch describes the text as representing a ‘code for performance’; a system of signals, letters and symbols that is open to a myriad number of different interpretations. It’s interesting to listen to Crouch espouse the merits of the text in this way; its presence as a physical object in the performances themselves signifying the partiality of the author’s voice and undermining the ‘trickery’ of what Crouch designates the ‘optical illusion’ of theatre. Instead of ‘submerging’ or ‘overwhelming’ the performances with the totalizing force of production elements, the on-stage visibility of the text as a tool ‘reveals the mechanics of the theatre event’. What emerges from Crouch’s conversation is a view of the text as a fluid and unstable wellspring of ideas; something tangible, but slippery. The text serves as the locus of the theatre event but one that is open to interrogation and vulnerable to the destabilizing forces of a performance.
What followed was the first of two panel discussions entitled ‘Beyond the text-based / non text-based divided’, chaired by Catherine Love and consisting of four speakers. The panel comprised Andrew Haydon (critic), Duska Radosaljevic (dramaturg and lecturer at University of Kent), Andy Field (Co-Artistic Director of Forest Fringe) and Jacqueline Bolton (lecturer at University of Lincoln). Whereas Crouch’s conversation had focused ostensibly on theoretical conceptions of British theatre’s fixation with ‘the text’, the panel discussion allowed for a more discursive and wide-ranging consideration of how institutional hierarchies sustain such binary definitions. The discussion began with a provocation from critic Andrew Haydon, who proposed that ‘the text isn’t necessarily synonymous with the play’ as published, a point that was supported and developed by Radosaljevic, who pointed to the fact that in other theatre cultures, ‘the text’ does not reside in the material document of the published work, but is located in the mise-en-scene of the theatre event itself. In other words, the way in which ‘text’ function’s as a critical term is contested terrain, as is the category of ‘devised theatre’. Bolton, who has written extensively on dramaturgical practices across Britain and Europe, points out that the very notion of ‘devised theatre’ is more or less alien to anyone beyond the British Isles. What’s interesting about ‘devised theatre’ as a category of work is that it was initially synonymous with the idea of radical, experimental, non-text based practice. It defined itself through its opposition to the prevailing culture of new writing. According to Bolton, it’s arguably as entrenched an idea as the text-based dogma that it set out to oppose.
But for me, it was Andy Field who attempted to alter the terms of the debate –re-focusing the conversation to consider such binary definitions within the realms of creative practice and institutional structures. For Field, the so-called text based/non-text based ‘schism’ is the result of ‘fluid creative practices struggling under the weight of fixed institutional pressures’. As someone involved in the making of performances and collaborating with artists, Field suggests that such categories are borne from a tendency on behalf of organizations to classify work according to the economic imperatives of commissioning, programming and funding projects.
The final panel discussion involved Vicky Angelaki (Lecturer in Drama at University of Birmingham), playwright Rory Mullarkey (Cannibals, Wolf From the Door), Cathy Turner (Senior Lecturer at University of Exeter) and Deborah Pearson (Co-Artistic Director at Forest Fringe) and was chaired by Caitlin Gowans. Entitled ‘Possibilities of text, narrative and performance’, the discussion allowed for a more inclusive vision of what ‘the text’ might offer in terms of its potential for performance. Angelaki spoke of the capacity for playwrights to ‘build unpredictability and flux into the text’ and ‘respond to the contemporary crises of our times’ with texts that offer the possibility of ‘disruptions’ in performance. Similarly, Mullarkey’s own work has sought to push the boundaries of what is possible within the text of a play, with daring shifts in tone, language and monumentally ambitious stage-directions that serve as a direct challenge to directors and theatre-makers.
A complete and comprehensive summary of the day’s discussions would require more words than I am permitted in the course of this article. However, what emerged clearly from its series of discussions, debate and provocations was a palpable desire to transcend the limits of this oppositional divide; to upset underlying assumptions; to dismantle ingrained hierarchies. It’s probably safe to say that we’ve reached something of an impasse in our attempts to reconcile our ‘text-based’ theatre with devising practices. If neither position is to become entrenched in theoretical point scoring, then what is now needed is for us to turn a new page entirely.