audiences, criticism, Responses, Theatre, thoughts

on expectations, secrets, democratising of opinion and grounded

Last year Jane Howard told me about a theatrical experiment: Lyric Hammersmith’s Secret Theatre. The theatre isn’t secret – it is a very well known venue used in slightly non-traditional ways – and the events aren’t secret – anyone is welcome. The secrets are the plays themselves. Audience are invited to book blind for a season of mystery performances. They could be seeing a classic, an adaptation or a brand new work. What they’re subscribing to is their own willingness to give themselves over to a night of theatre without preconceived notions of what they will experience.

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Sometimes I wish I could walk into a theatre completely blind. I wish I could walk in and sit down without having heard my friends’ opinions. I seldom read reviews before I see something and never read program notes until afterwards (unless instructed to by the artist) but despite this I am almost always entering the space with a lot of prior knowledge due to the tightness of our community. I love the idea of booking, collecting a ticket and sitting down without ever knowing if I’m going to see Shakespeare, Churchill or Sisters Grimm. Can you imagine being in a theatre and having no idea of what you are about to see? An actor walks onstage and perhaps he says this:

  • “she turned eighteen that summer       she was a skinny gal sittin on the crumbling cement stoop of her apartment building sippin lime soda outta a sweatin glass bottle       wrappin her lips round the neck like she wanted it real bad[1]

Perhaps she says this:

  • “Every morning I wake up in my red bedroom that seemed like genius when I painted it, but looks more and more like carnage these days.[2]

Perhaps he says nothing. Perhaps he screams and perhaps a fish falls from the sky and lands at his feet[3].

Or perhaps he says:

  • “Now is the winter of our discontent Made glorious summer by this sun of York[4]

And even though you know these words, you had no idea he was going to say them and this creates an illusion of newness in your ears.

As a playwright I love the idea. I hate that I have to reveal a twist in order to market a play. “This is a play about” can be such damning words, reductive to both the script and the imaginative possibilities of its audience.

As both makers and watchers we are so immersed in our own community that it is difficult to be truly surprised. Often I find this works to the detriment of the good shows: productions that get a lot of hype early in the season tend to be unable to live up to unrealisable expectations. Conversely, I try so gosh darn hard to find something amazing in every show, something that I personally could not have done, that hearing only bad reports of a show sends me into a state of manic optimism. I tell myself “I’m going to be the one that GETS this.” I give it the benefit of everyone’s doubts.

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Secret Theatre’s ‘Show 4’

Now a quick search online will prove that Secret Theatre is not the perfect solution. Already critics have pointed out that the ‘secret’ is detracting from the play itself. In other words, if this was their solution for managing our expectations, they only created more hype for themselves to live up to.

Hype isn’t a new thing but the prevalence of social media and having the fast-tracked, fast-formed opinions of our entire community only a click away is a very modern phenomenon. Where once the critic was the voice of verdict, now they are a part of a chorus. Which is good, don’t mistake me. We are democratising opinion and, hopefully, this will lead to a far more nuanced documentation of a work. As Alison Croggon said in a recent interview with Jana Perkovic and I, we are “letting go of the fiction that critics are the objective judges of whatever art happens around their feet and entering much more into the flux of the moment.” However, this does mean that we, as intelligent, hard-thinking audiences, must question ourselves as to how our expectations shape our perception of a work. It also means that theatre has to be fucking good to still surprise, excite and move us in its second week.

Which brings me to the show that started this line of thought. I’ve got to admit that I was wary going into Grounded because I had heard nothing but glowing responses. I tried not to build up my expectations or read any details of the show. I wanted to go in as blank as possible. But I need not have worried.

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Kate Cole in ‘Grounded’

Grounded is everything I want in a one-woman show: outstanding storytelling that immerses us so deeply in one person’s world view that it changes our own. Just a little. Kate Cole’s performance met George Brant’s exquisite script with the intellectual vigour, empathy and toughness it deserved. Any moment that could potentially descend into poetic fluffiness was clamped down on. The effect was heart-breaking. It made me think of Joanne Sutton’s performance in Insomnia Cat Came To Stay: when I played the role, the insomniac’s mental deterioration felt like less of a journey because, let’s face it, I already look like a sleep-deprived, neurotic nut. Joanne on the other hand, began as such a strong, capable figure, and her crash was far more tragic as a result. It was like this with Kate Cole only that she never truly crashed into vulnerability. Despite her extreme PTSD[5], the character’s sense of herself as a powerful woman of war is what holds the fibres of her tattered being together.

The story is a familiar one but, again, our expectations are exceeded at every sentence by beautifully crafted words that never behave in quite the way we are expecting them to. The writing is a joy. The performance equally so. And then there is the design.

While it makes me feel like a reviewer (as opposed to just some kid that writes about things that interest her) to go through and mention each element separately, I do want to talk about Matt Adey’s design because again, it is about exceeding our expectations. The difficulty facing any designer working in Red Stitch’s icon barn-sized theatre is that the audience has seen that space for years. We know its exact size (tiny) and exact shape (peculiar) but Adey made it feel like a new space; a bigger space and yet, one oppressive to its inhabitant. Its supposed immensity magnified her isolation rather than diluted it and elegant lighting changes transformed her world from a freeing expanse to a nightmare of unrelenting intensity. Fucking rad.

Grounded runs until July 12th and you should get on it because it deserves to sell out and I have no doubt it will.

I have one more thing to say about it. As someone whose Middle Eastern heritage is not worn in her face or her skin colour, stories like this break my heart. Sitting there and hearing of the brown people made grey by the drone’s cameras, made body-parts by their blasts, and I was acutely aware – although no one would know it to look at me – that these people looked just like my beloved grandmother. Looked just like my great-grandmother who was three when the family came out here and became one of a tiny population of Middle Easterns in rural Australia. They were my great-great-grandmother who was raised by Lutheran nuns in Beirut after her mother, my great-great-great-grandmother, froze to death somewhere in a vineyard in Syria. I knew this and it tore me to pieces. In showing how America dehumanises both its own and my grandmother’s people, Grounded found humanity for both.

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My great-grandmother, left, and her sister, May.

[1] but I cd only whisper by Kristiana Colòn

[2] My Name Is Rachel Corrie by Rachel Corrie edited by Alan Rickman and Katharine Viner

[3] When the rain stops falling by Andrew Bovell

[4] Richard III by some important dead dude

[5] Or is to CTSD? Concurrent Traumatic Stress Disorder. As we enter a new era of warfare, we enter a new era of psychological trauma.

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One thought on “on expectations, secrets, democratising of opinion and grounded

  1. Pingback: “Flawless” – Grounded runs until July 12th | Red Stitch Actors Theatre | Australia’s leading ensemble theatre company, premiering contemporary works since 2002

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