Actors vs Tellyboxes

15 April 2019

Liam Rees asks if theatre can compete with TV and whether it's even trying to

In and of itself Gogglebox makes for a fascinating viewing experience cum social experiment so a live-action recreation of it seems like the ideal way to dig into contemporary consumer culture full of endless prequels, sequels, remakes and repeats – commenting on and cannibalizing itself. At its simplest ARE YOU STILL WATCHING is a scattershot sketch show, ripping recognizable taglines and catchphrases from TV in a style that’s amusing and never boring but often empty and unsatisfying. As each parody’s facade breaks down and everything gets a little bit too real another one begins, anxiously avoiding anything too close to home – a decision that’s clearly intentional and makes total sense as a concept but in practice it doesn’t quite work. The cast and creative team have certainly given themselves a tricky task: how do you make something genuine out of something so fundamentally artificial? I’m not sure any of us have the answer yet but the cycle of artifice being stripped back to reveal a glimmer of authenticity only to deny anything deeper is a fascinating approach that I’d love to see developed further. It feels as though the cast have aimed for so many targets that it doesn’t manage to hit them all but even if the show itself feels like a work-in-progress, I’m glad to have seen it at the festival for the questions and conversations it’s raised. I’m quite firmly of the opinion that it’s more important for NSDF to select work that’s interesting and thought-provoking rather than “good, well-made pieces of theatre”. After all, if you can’t ask difficult questions to which you don’t know the answers and fuck some shit up as a student company then when can you?

After the show I chatted to Chris Thorpe about what theatre can do that TV can’t – with the general consensus that film and TV have long since superseded theatre as the ideal medium with which to emotionally manipulate us. Neat (if contrived) plotlines, swelling soundtracks, perfect camera angles and editing all the best shots together – it’s a whole arsenal with which to make the narrative and characters as engaging as possible, ensuring maximum feels with pinpoint precision. How can theatre compete? Well, I’d say it shouldn’t bother. Just like photography didn’t kill painting – it challenged it, forced it to become something more expressive and ultimately it liberated it from its previous restrictions. In the same way could film and TV not free theatre up to do something different – to be something more fundamentally theatrical?

It’s an opinion shared by Ali Pidsley, whose work with Barrel Organ constantly interrogates what a live theatrical experience is. That means at the start of every rehearsal process they have to ask if this story or idea or whatever it may be could be done better in any medium other than theatre and trying to find the live-est way of putting it onstage.

Sharing stories of our experiences working in mainland Europe, I remembered a Belgian director who said that we’re so bombarded with stories nowadays that we’re emotionally burnt out, so theatre doesn’t need to tell more stories and add to the noise but should embrace that it’s a space where we can all be present and sit with an idea or a feeling. Something closer to a collective meditation than an evening of storytelling using the same tools as film and TV. I still believe theatre should make you feel something, otherwise it’s just an essay put onstage, but it can use different tools (like the physical presence and interaction between actor and audience in a specific time and space) to get different, and I think, deeper results.

At one point in ARE YOU STILL WATCHING, Kellie Colbert, playing a gratingly obnoxious Alyssa Edwards from RuPaul’s Drag Race finally gave up on the act and just talked to us as herself. Her stories and anecdotes about wanting to be more confident and able stand up for herself were simple, intimate and honest. If we are inundated with ironic stories about stories and emotionally burnt out then maybe the most vital and radical thing theatre can do is be completely and utterly sincere, no matter how messy and awkward that may be.

It’s a difficult question and I’m not sure I have the answer but if NSDF isn’t the place to ask it then where is?

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Image credit: Beatrice Debney