It’s a bit ironic that the first show I saw at a theatre festival was so firmly rooted in television, but this in itself reflects a balancing act between these two different modes of culture. They have no choice but to interact, and the questions of how to balance them have to be unpicked.
There were definitely some moments in ARE YOU STILL WATCHING which I felt could have been afforded more attention. An hour isn’t a long time, and the nature of the piece means that many different perspectives are almost momentarily explored. In turn, this led me to a wish that they could have just given them a little more time, breaking them open and seeing what’s inside.
However, perhaps that’s at odds with the show itself. I may be wrong here, but the structure certainly seems to reflect a person skipping between channels, barely giving each one the time that they need to grow. That’s kind of where the strangeness lies in creating a piece of theatre about watching television. In theatre, there’s generally an acceptance that it’s the company calling the shots of what we watch and when. The viewing experience of an audience member lies basically in their hands, and the dynamic between performer and audience tends to be reliant on the viewer accepting that fact.
By obvious contrast, television is the pinnacle of the autonomous viewing experience. With literally hundreds of channels and sources to flit between, the viewer entirely curates their own entertainment, but that doesn’t mean that they do it well, whatever “well” means.
There’s plenty of commentary in ARE YOU STILL WATCHING which focuses far less so on what people watch, but on why and how they watch it. Across these snippets of life, the emerging theme is definitely one of television offering a meeting point, or an easy form of interaction. The interesting thing to me here is the exclusion of other reasons: it’s easy for us to read hundreds of words on the cinematic merits of Fleabag, but there’s definitely a disconnect between this and how many people actually watch television, often giving up on shows seconds in.
In the case of this show, however, I wasn’t fully convinced by how the experience of jumping between channels translates to the stage. By removing the autonomy of the audience in what to skip over and when, it started to feel a little closer to chaos than it needed to.
At the same time, there were some moments which worked brilliantly in isolation. The image of a group of people rubbing onions on their eyes to make themselves cry whilst talking about “the sad bit” tapped into something extremely pertinent about the emotions we express when we watch things, why we do that, and how we do it. This is the kind of thing that could have been dug into so much more, as it’s such an interesting starting point.
I think I know what The Arden School are trying to capture. However, it seems to be something so abstract and ephemeral that they haven’t got it yet.
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