14 April 2017
Louise Cross responds to Ghee Bowman's provocation
"We shall not have succeeded in demolishing everything unless we demolish the ruins as well. But the only way I see of doing that is to use them to put up a lot of fine, well-designed buildings."
I would like to respond to Ghee Bowman’s provocation in "Prove me wrong", a well-written and thoughtful discussion published in Noises Off asking why students are afraid of performing the classics, noting that none of the performances this year was written before 2010. He advocates a greater variety at NSDF that includes these sorts of works. I cannot disagree with a desire for variety at NSDF. Instead, what prompts me to respond is that I am so pleased that there is so much new writing at the festival this year.
I will therefore explain, overly sincerely, why I am so resistant to, or "scared" of, the classics and then offer an alternative type of performance that I would like to see in NSDF in the future.
Something that was touched upon in the integrated casting discussion is that the dramatic canon is dominated by dead white male writers. The canon is intrinsic in shaping our value, normalising hegemonic ideologies and hierarchies and creating the "unconscious bias’’ that was a reoccurring topic in the aforementioned discussion. I am therefore "scared" of how these texts perpetuate harmful power systems. If we are to consider the Brother Grimm fairy tales, for example (although not a dramatic text), they are linked to a history of writing out women creators as the female members of the Grimm family. They were just as involved in the collection and collation process of these tales but as they are omitted from reference in "Brothers Grimm", they also formalised the norm of the beautiful, dutiful woman.
Theatre is not the place to be resistant to change. We need to encourage new theatre-makers to test theatrical conventions, push the limits of these social structures. We need to learn how to test our creativity and devising skills that will prepare us for the changing social climate and the demands of late capitalism.
There is a struggle between dramatic canon and contemporary theatre, but the struggle is contemporary theatre’s challenge to find a platform in an artistic landscape where Shakespeare dominates the financial resources. These old works continue to be funded because they are safer as spectators know what they can expect from these performances and therefore reception can be managed more easily. The risk element that comes with new work is greater. Therefore fewer organisations are willing to take a risk on them.
Ghee Bowman asks if students have "no sense of history". Let’s not have a selective history. If we want to talk about the canon, let’s address it. In Ghee Bowman’s hypothetical quota system, I would therefore like to suggest replacing the slots reserved for the Bard and the classics to be replaced with works that directly address the authority of the canon. Let’s bring these dramatic texts into a postdramatic realm and deconstruct the values that they have normalised. Address the history. Let’s encourage a reflexive dramaturgy. Let’s interrogate the social import that these works represent to us culturally. Instead of Hamlet, Medea and fairy tales, let’s have Heiner Müller’s Hamletmachine, or Despoiled Shores, Medeamaterial, Landscape with Argonauts. Let’s have Elfriede Jelinek’s Princess Dramas.
It’s been 37 years since Richard Schechner founded the performance studies at New York University fundamentally dislodging theatre from literary studies. It bothers me, therefore, that NSDF is the National Student Drama Festival. This continues to prioritise dramatic performance texts. Surely this is an archaic term that no longer reflects the fantastic work that we are all creating.
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Photo credit: Aenne Pallasaca