U Ok Hun?
27 March 2018
Ava Davies explores the constant exhaustion of issue-based shows
The majority of shows I’ve seen so far at NSDF have been about issues.
That’s fine. It's necessary and I'm glad to see underrepresented voices (perhaps they’re experiences more than voices) being uplifted and validated. The focus is on the performers, not necessarily the audience, those subjective experiences that we, it is assumed, as a monolith cannot understand. But as I’ve said and kept saying, theatre is dialogue, a collaboration between those watching (and participating) and those onstage, those who have originated the work. That dialogue, that sense of communication, stretches from the rehearsal room to the final bows and you can’t discard one or the other. Otherwise it’s not theatre.
Talking to festgoers at the U OK Hun? FOR U M this morning was simultaneously depressing and illuminating. Similar issues were being thrown up: responsibility as a performer, as an audience member, the bond of trust between performer and audience, safety in theatrical spaces and how to create it, how it is breached.
The audience is not a monolith – the audience is made up of living, breathing individuals who have their own certain triggers (that they might not even know about). We can’t take each individual one into account but we can do the best we can. Right now, we’re not doing the best that we could be doing.
The very nature of NSDF means that often, we go into shows without almost any prior knowledge of their content or how that content is addressed. This is student work. I don’t mean that student work isn’t mature or can’t handle sensitive issues, but people in the early stages of their career can and do make mistakes in their handling. That’s the whole point of being a student. So the onus shouldn’t fall entirely on the shoulders of the makers who have made inadvertently distressing work, but on the systems that want to put their work on and don’t take proper precautions.
Something that has come up consistently in discussions this week has been about care and recovery post-show. The addition of quiet rooms to the spaces throughout the festival has, it seems, been universally praised. But we need pre-show and mid-show care too. Content warnings need to be more comprehensive – because to me, at least, the concept of spoiling a show is fundamentally ridiculous. The idea that content warning gunshots or self harm prior to a performance will spoil your experience essentially suggests that you only enjoy theatre for the shock factor. Preventing a panic attack is always going to be more important than spoiling an incidental detail that does not sum up the entirety of the show. We can’t just ask people to come up to Front of House (FoH) staff if they want a content warning because people aren’t always aware of what they can be triggered by. We need to take active care of our audiences, as much as we do our performers and makers. We need to put the people before the art. Audiences and makers should not be suffering as much as they are.
Leaving performances midway through was another highly discussed topic at the FOR U M. Several members of the Management Team expressed concerns that they were unsure of the content of certain shows before stewarding them, and thus couldn’t be completely certain as to procedure if and when certain people decided to leave. The act of leaving a show because you feel uncomfortable or upset can be a deeply stressful one that affects your mental health as much as the content onstage. You are watched, attention is diverted from the work and leaving becomes a performative act. I’m not sure if there’s any way around making that act less performative, but FoH staff who are aware in advance and in detail of any distressing content – when and where it is in the show – would be able to guide upset audience members out in a more assured manner. FoH need to be able to know when things aren’t going right in a performance. If there is an element of risk in a certain show, then they need to be aware of how to adjust to said risk. This isn’t their fault – this kind of change needs to be structural, but NSDF is an independent institution and we can make these kind of changes if we want to.
There have already been several deliberate shifts towards the way some of the shows this week will approach sensitive topics. Producer of Speed Death of the Radiant Child Emily Davis is enormously passionate about maintaining a level of trust between performer and audience. She says: “All performances should be relaxed ones. Sitting still and quietly in theatre is about class inheritance. It’s the people who had money who made these arbitrary rules.” Noises Off deputy editor Lily James concurs, saying that we need to unlearn the types of behaviour we learnt when we first started going to the theatre. That it's a totally reverential space, a special thing, that we need to sit down and shut up and spectate. It’s true. These concepts of theatre are totally archaic. It isn’t relevant to the spaces and the structures we operate in, or hope to operate in as we move into the industry.
NSDF should be made of open, generous, democratic and kind spaces that can simultaneously challenge our echo chambers. Hard, yes, but not impossible. I believe we can do it, but we need to keep talking, keep discussing, and we need to make active plans. We need to push management to content warn their shows more effectively. The team of Speed Death have already adjusted their pre-show care in order to make their audience as comfortable as possible in an often disturbing show. We can make these changes if we want to. I know we can.
Photo credit: Aenne Pallasca