Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Spotted this in the Guardian this morning:

Europeans fear US attack on Iran as nuclear row intensifies

Now I know I'm usually quite strict about this being a theatre blog, but it's at times like this that I wonder whether I shouldn't have gone into something else entirely.

Just after I graduated (almost a decade ago now) I had a long conversation with a good friend, who had also just completed a Drama degree, about what difference we could possibly make in the world. We went round in circles for a while trying to find examples of when Theatre had had a political impact that History had actually acknowledged, and couldn't come up with very much. My friend was more of an idealist and less of a pessimist than me (and had done a slightly more leftfield degree) and he kept banging on about Augusto Boal and all that grass roots type stuff. That's all well and good; I've read some of his books and admire some of his ideas, but the bottom line is that he achieved more through writing political literature and eventually standing for election than he ever did as a writer or director. I know there are such a thing as 'soft outcomes' and working as I do in education I do value those personal changes in individuals, such as increased confidence in young people, that involvement in theatre can bring about. But when it comes to the big political stuff, I feel powerlss, and more than a little frustrated.

I wondered at the time whether I was just a fresh-faced graduate without the facts at my disposal. But ten years on, five of which I've spent as a playwright, I still struggle to point to a single play or season of plays which Unequivocally Changed Something - such as stopping one country bombing another.

Maybe that's asking too much. Maybe theatre's political effect can only ever be a drip-drip one, carving a small but steady fissure down the cliff face of society's perceptions. There are the cliches: we hold a mirror up, we are one of the few remaining spaces for collective consideration of aspects of ourselves. I value all that, and I acknowledge that this in itself can indeed slowly bring about change in small ways. But when I see headlines like the one above and just feel that sudden yearning that This Isn't Right, and Will The Idiots Never Learn?! then that the next feeling is always I Have To Stop This. But I can't.

I know there are people who have tried. Harold Pinter springs to mind. I've just (belatedly) finished reading Billington's biography of him. Alright, he speaks his mind and has a platform and is taken as seriously a playwright probably ever will be in political circles. And he got kicked out of the US embassy in Turkey, along with Arthur Miller, for asking the ambassador if he'd like to have his bollocks electrocuted. Big up. But what difference did it make in terms of preventing torture in that country?

Could we as theatre-makers make more of a difference if we didn't waste so much energy making theatre? I know that might sound like a stupid question, but think about the amount of time and extraordinary mental effort that goes into writing a play - for me, 3 months or more of full-time research, plus another 3 of full-time original creative thought to make the play (and that's just the first draft, then there's everyone else's efforts to get it to the stage) - and then think about the outcome. It makes me rather depressed. All that work, which stretches me to the very limits of my capabilities, and for what? A round of applause, a few people nodding and going 'Hmm yes, how interesting'? Then going home feeling entertained and mildly better informed. Sometimes this doesn't feel like enough, and I wonder whether this energy couldn't be better spent. If I put in the same level of exertion into, I don't know, working for the UN, or Amnesty, or The Red Cross, or as an investigative journalist - wouldn't the actual net result in terms of lives changed be so much greater?

Obviously, I'm a bit stuck now. To do that stuff I'd have to go and re-train and start over and throw away years spent working towards where I am today. Or is that just an excuse? I could do it if I really wanted to. Maybe not in time to stop America bombing Iran, but there might be plenty of other future events which my efforts could be put towards avoiding, which writing a play about them would never prevent.

But I'm stuck wasting my time with this indulgent middle-class career-hobby. Sometimes I wonder why.


David Eldridge said...

While I'm no Marxist, and would describe myself as a Social Democrat or on the soft left, I do subscribe heartily to the notion that we can make a valuable contribution to our society 'by hand or by brain'.

Really enjoyable post. I've had many doubts myself in the past. Partly why I so dislike on-the-nose political theatre, is that it often feels like the middle class theatre-maker dealing indulgently with their bloody middle class guilt rather than an honest response to the world.

But we must all make what contibution we can and use what talents we have for the good of our society - to challenge, to illuminate, to question, to entertain and make them laugh, to move, to enrich, to elevate an audience and to rub their nose in the shit.

While I adore your modesty and the questions you ask yourself (and hope you continue to ask yourself) I think you would only be being indulgent Fin if you knew in your heart you were no good. And that we both know isn't true.

Fin said...

Thanks David! I do know that's why I do it too, i just have a little blip now and then. So thank you for the pep talk.

I've actually been thinking about this a lot lately, and at the moment I'm feeling much more inspired by my parallel career in education. It's partly because I've had some bad news on the commissioning front (which no, I'm not prepared to blog about yet) so I'm feeling a bit let down by mainstream theatre - yet again.

But it's also because in terms of theatre having a tangible effect, I just love working with young people and seeing the results straight away. Only yesterday I was with my Edinburgh group of Muslim teenage girls in Tower Hamlets and hearing their tales of being spat at by lorry drivers and called Pakis and Terrorists on the DLR. I'm seriously excited about writing an explosive new play for them all to take to Edinburgh (pun very much intended). It's their chance to answer back and I'm really proud and privileged to be given the chance to facilitate that for them.

Yesterday I also searched the Fringe website for last year's listings and used the keywords Bengali, Bangladeshi, Muslim, Asian, Teenager and even Terrorism. (Welcome, search engine guests!) Apart from a show about Northern Ireland and an Indian DJ doing a gig there wasn't a single show that came back in the entire listing of 2,000 shows. That's what really excites me - charting new territory and giving a voice to marginalised groups. Education is way ahead of the arts in this respect. Theatre could learn a lot.

lancewrite said...

The Edinburgh Fringe isn't typical in this regard. Some theatres do engage with those keywords. The Door at the Birmingham Rep springs to mind (I hope they're not the ones who've put you through commissioning hell).

Thanks for the post - you voice what is a recurring issue for most playwrights I imagine.

jmc said...

Your Edinburgh show sounds very exciting, Fin. It sounds like a necessary play. As to "political theatre" - I am always a bit perplexed when I hear people speak about it. I don't know any theatre - any drama - which isn't political, one way or the other. Stoppard, Bennett, Noel Coward for Christsakes! are all intensely political, and politically aligned, dramatists. What dramatists should do, of course, is tell the truth (which your play for the Muslim teenagers certainly promises to), and what's more political than the truth? It's the most effective bomb. I think we should stop dividing theatre into "political" and "apolitical" and start talking about theatres of truth, and theatres of lies. Most mainstream theatre is, in my opinion, a theatre of lies.

Anonymous said...

jmc's notion of 'necessary play' is right, Fin, and the Edinburgh project sounds exciting. Interesting to see you at Lisa Goldman's leaving do just after you writing this and i won't ask where you stand on the Red Room.. but if your plays are ones you feel are 'necessary' - and they are provoking or alerting the audience, then aren't you making a contribution well suited to you and one which perhaps only you can make? It doesn't make it better than the nurses and the aid workers, but you reach some poeple that they don't.

sbs said...

I was on the march before Iraq 2 and there were cast members from Les Mis hanging out the dressing room windows waving the French tricolour in solidarity - Liberty etc - and that says it for me - we do what we can, the stories we tell about love and friendship and their enemies - all the dark things we delve into, and the jokes, and the howls of pain, and everything else - if it's all for anything, it's to say we hold these values above everything, above country, religion, everything - this is necessary, and good.
And if it's all screwed, if we're all off to hell in a handcart, then in a hundred millennia some better civilisation, when they kick over the traces, will hopefully think of us kindly for at least trying.