Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Something in the Air

As a theatre professional who loves films, I'm often caught up in discussions about the two media, and what they each do best. Film folk can have a bit of Electra complex about the mother medium, arguing that the younger art has replaced the older, in the same way that the car replaced the horse, or the invention of writing meant that no one had to speak ever again.

There's no denying that the two have very different strengths and weaknesses - one of the recurring conversations at ScriptTank, my writers' group, relates to the need for a story to find the medium to which it's best suited, be that theatre, film, television, radio or prose. So, in the interests of sparking debate, I'd like to propose a formulation. The difference between the two major dramatic media is, at root, elemental: film is fire and water, theatre is earth and air.

Still reading? Let me elaborate...

Film is defined by a changing pattern of light projected onto a wall. Once upon a time, it used to flicker, conveying a sense of stories by the fireside, but digital projection has lessened that, more's the pity. On this light, we witness a constantly shifting, fluid image, the human brain finding causality and connection between discrete shots. Film-makers have picked up on these elements since the medium's birth. The Life of an American Fireman (1903) was one of the first narrative films, and fire, in the form of explosions, is still the defining feature of the summer blockbuster. Major movies have been set on ships from Potemkin to Titanic. The most iconic film of them all starts with liquid in a snow-globe, and ends with a sledge being consigned to a furnace.

The theatre, by contrast, is defined by shared space and physical reality. Whatever you see on stage is there, in real time and one take. It's why, for instance, the steam train in The Railway Children is far more impressive than its cinematic equivalent - it's actually there, not just 3-D but in Einsteinian terms, 4. Added to that, there's the knowledge that everyone present is sharing the same experience, breathing the same air. One of its greatest pleasures is that moment of realising that everyone in the room is holding their breath at the same time, producing what Shelley Winters described as 'the best sound a player can get... the sound of a wonderful, deep silence that means you've hit them where they live'. (Indeed, my own job - directing - can be described as the art of getting an audience to synchronise their breathing - it's harder than it sounds).

So there you go - light and fluidity equals fire and water, solidity and sharing equals earth and air. Two media, each with their own defining elements. Logically, you'd have thought that both would be at their best when playing to their strengths, and that's often the case. But sometimes the greatest joy comes from work that plays against its medium, and triumphs. Many of my own best experiences in the theatre have had a fluidity of image that I only call 'cinematic' - funnily enough, these tend to be either extremely high-tech - the work, for instance, of Robert Lepage - or very low-tech, like Trevor Nunn's bare-stage Macbeth.

Conversely, a film like Hunger (2008), about the IRA hunger striker Bobby Sands, directed by the artist Steve McQueen and written by the playwright Enda Walsh, uses its long takes and loving, very corporeal close-ups (often of things that aren't normally considered beautiful - starvation-racked bodies and shit-stained walls) to create an experience that was much closer to a live event. Looking round me in the cinema, I realised that I was hearing that silence described above - a silence that is, in the best sense of the word, theatrical.

Tuesday, 20 July 2010

Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Popping Daddies

'Straight From the Fridge, Dad' is a new edition of Max Decharne's book on jazz and hipster slang, the kind of thing epitomised in its title, which is from the 1959 film 'Beat Girl' and means, logically enough, 'cool'. Last week, I saw Decharne talking about the book at Westminster Reference Library, or, as he suggested we call it, 'Wordsville'.

The book's about a kind of hip speech that started off in the 1920s, born of an alliance of jazz musicians, white bohemians, and gangsters, thrown together by Prohibition. It drew on foreign languages- 'hepcat' and 'honky' are from the West African Wolof, 'drag' is a literal translation of the Yiddish 'schlep' - and playful, elaborate terms from crime and music - a 'Chicago piano' was a Tommy gun, while playing a non-metaphorical piano was 'battering the elephant's teeth'.

This lingo was popularised by musicians such as Cab Calloway, and, a bit later, comedians like Lord Buckley, who translated Mark Antony's oration over Caesar into hep-talk; 'Hipsters, Flipsters and Finger-Popping Daddies, Knock me your lobes...'. Crime novelists picked it up and added to it - Dashiell Hammett managed to slip a hidden subtext into 'The Maltese Falcon' by referring to Kasper Gutman's young companion Wilmer as a 'gunsel' - which sounds like another word for a gunman (which Wilmer also is) but actually, to those in the know, means a young boy kept by (and for) an older homosexual.

Decharne argues that hipster talk died out (as living slang) in the mid '60s, killed off by psychedelia, and the rift between black and white America that followed the death of Martin Luther King. Today, what's striking is the fact that it remained basically unchanged for so long.

Part of the point of slang is to act as a shibboleth, to mark out the in-crowd from everyone else, whether for reasons of race, youth, or just generalised hipness. Calloway could call a song 'Reefer Man' precisely because he knew that most radio programmers wouldn't have a clue what it meant, and wouldn't be able to find out.

Nowadays, of course, even white middle-aged academics like myself can stay down with da kidz, courtesy of websites such as www.urbandictionary.com. I'm not stupid enough to think that knowing what 'nang' means makes me, well, nang - my students probably regard that one as quite archaic. Nick Hornby has argued (in '31 Songs', p. 166) that one reason for the popularity of gangsta rap and death metal is the increasing difficulty for teenagers of finding a life-soundtrack that their parents won't appropriate, and I'd guess that a similar process is going on with slang, as terms become unfashionable at an ever greater rate. As Andy Warhol nearly said 'In the future, everybody will be hip for fifteen minutes.'

Wednesday, 14 July 2010

On Scene and Heard, and the Power of Transposition

If you'd been in the Hope and Anchor, near Mornington Crescent, last Friday, you'd have encountered a group of theatre directors, writers and actors, who'd just been at Theatro Technis for the latest show produced by Scene and Heard. Most of these people were volunteers for the company, and most could have told you roughly the same anecdote. This would involve being told about a company that staged short plays by nine and ten year-old playwrights, going along expecting something dull and worthy, and realising, a little way in, that this was one of the best evenings of theatre one had ever seen.

My own Damascene moment, for instance, came during a piece where the principal character, a pencil, was feeling inferior because she was being replaced by a felt-tip pen. The resolution was brought about by the appearance of the Queen of the Pencils, who assured the protagonist that 'Felt-tip pens run out. Pencils just get shorter.'

It was at this point, eight years ago, that I decided I had to become a Scene and Heard volunteer, and I've been one ever since - by some margin, the most worthwhile thing I do. The company is based in Somers Town (fittingly enough, the only part of London named after an entertainer - Will Somers was Henry VIII's court jester) and works with children with local schools. Typically, a show will involve nine or ten short plays, each lasting about eight minutes and involving two or three professional actors, a director and - hardest job of the lot - a dramaturg, who helps the child write the play, dragging it out of him or her, often line by line, over an intensive writing weekend. Add in workshop volunteers, and you've got a small army of theatre professionals, working for nothing more than the fun and fulfillment of it. As a colleague said to me once 'What we're doing is telling the children that what they have to say is worth listening to - and I wish someone had said that to me when I was ten.'.

The company was founded in 1999 by Sophie Boyack and Kate Coleman, and is modelled on the work of the 52nd Street Company in New York City. Part of this involves the child playwrights creating characters that aren't necessarily human, so that my own most recent dramaturging was of a three-hander between a Sumo wrestler, a credit card and a cupcake. The latter was also a serial killer, prompting the line 'You look like a sweet cupcake, but you have a jam filling of stone.'.

One effect of this is that the children, deprived of documentary realism, end up writing plays with oddly revealing subtexts - one girl wrote a duologue between a computer mouse (played by ex-Blue Peter presenter Janet Ellis) and a superannuated '70s Disco Ball, that was clearly, on one level, about growing old - I discovered later that the author's father ran a mobile disco.

In a culture obsessed with keeping it real, it's easy to confuse honesty with literalness, whereas some things are too complex to be dealt with except as metaphor. My sister, who lives near Paris, frequently does corporate workshops where tensions within a company are dealt with by putting them within an apparently absurd context, such as that of a horror film. In French, this is called (assume heavy accent here) 'transposition', and in a wider sense, it's seen as central to what theatre does. As always, Oscar Wilde put it best: 'Give a man a mask, and he will tell you the truth.'.

Tuesday, 6 July 2010

Geek Chic.

One of the most unexpected consequences of the internet - to me, at any rate - has been the normalisation of geek culture. When I was a teenage comics fan, in the seventies, the only way to communicate with other socially awkward pop culture obsessives was through conventions or poorly-mimeographed fanzines. Nowadays, we're all over the pace; dominating that part of the net that isn't pornography, bickering in chatrooms and generally running the show, to the extent that Roz Kaveney can write 'it seems to me impossible fully to understand much current popular culture without acquaintance with fan sub-cultures'. (Teen Dreams, p.8).

Running parallel with this has been the rise of what I'd call the 'uber-geek' - a media-savvy figure, maybe a little smoother and better-dressed than his peers, who nonetheless wasn't ashamed to wear his anorak on his sleeve. In the nineties and noughties, uber-geeks were everywhere; in the cinema (Quentin Tarantino - note to younger readers; Tarantino was once highly regarded - the Coen Brothers), in music (Jarvis Cocker - who never seemed entirely at ease with the laddishness of Britpop - Neil Tennant), in the press (Kim Newman, Mark Kermode, Caitlin Moran - hey, fellows, a girl!), in bookshops (Nick Hornby) and on television (Jonathan Ross, Matt Groening, Joss Whedon, the League of Gentlemen, Russell T. Davies).

It's not a coincidence that the above list includes a disproportionate number of gay men; pre-internet geek culture was a lot like a less sexualised version of the pre-Woolfenden gay scene - homosocial, secretive, unnoticed by most outsiders, self-ironising, bitchy and given to communication through a set of iconic signifiers. Hornby catches it nicely in High Fidelity, where being a fan of Richard Thompson is as defining as being a Friend of Dorothy.

Quite how much the world has changed was brought home to me last Sunday, when Matt Smith appeared onstage with Orbital at Glastonbury, the same day that England crashed out of the World Cup.

What was striking about England's apparently woeful performance (I didn't see any of the games) was the way in which it was reported in terms of a class war - the working-class heroes of 1966 (and, to a lesser extent, 1990) have become viewed the same way we do bankers - pampered riders of the Premiere League gravy-train. The nation's love affair with football may not be over, but we're certainly having a trial separation.

By contrast, Dr. Who appears at Glasto, and the crowd goes wild. As one Twitterer observed, can you imagine Patrick Troughton guesting with Hendrix? Jon Pertwee with Pink Floyd? Tom Baker with the Clash? Okay, maybe the last one, but you take my point.

This is why it wouldn't be entirely facetious to say that 27 June 2010 may be remembered as a cultural watershed, like the first night of Look Back in Anger or the Beatles on The Ed Sullivan Show. For the first time ever, Dr. Who is cooler than football. To put it in John Hughes-speak, the war between geeks and jocks is over. And we won.

Thursday, 1 July 2010

On College Productions, and the Purpose of Education

Last week, I went to see a college production featuring a seventeen year-old I worked with a few years ago. He's clever but not academic, working-class, personable, and from a roughish area of North London. He's currently doing a B. Tech. at a local FE college; this was his end-of-year production.

It was - let's not mess around here - bloody awful, a series of poorly-staged, semi-audible scenes, performed by self-conscious teenagers in regulation black t-shirts and jeans to an audience of unengaged mums and chums. Nominally based on a nineteenth century novel - which I'm willing to bet no one involved had actually read - it had no relation to the students' own lives, and their only possible approach was parody or camp anachronism. For a school production, it would have been shoddy - for something produced by students supposedly studying drama, it was shameful.

There were two moments of worthwhile theatricality - a bit of body-popping, clearly there to showcase a cast member's skill, and, at the end, a tango, danced by the whole cast. Out of period, dramatically irrelevant, and unsuited to the age group, it nonetheless stood at as the only time in the show where you got a sense of performers trying to master something outside their own immediate experience.

At the curtain call, the group's tutor came on to student cheers and congratulated the group on the quality of their work. They departed, with exaggerated luvvie-ish bows.

In the pub afterwards, my companion and I tried out to work out what the students, and our friend in particular, were getting from the experience. Neither expressing their own situation, not (tango apart) dealing with anything beyond it, they seemed to be working for nothing more than a few laughs, and an entirely unrealistic idea of what it's like to be a performer.

Until comparatively recently, the philosophy of schooling was fairly simple; the rich were taught to expand their minds, the poor to learn a trade - it's sometimes defined as the difference between education and training. The Butler Education Act changed all that - thank god - but now we seem to be caught in a mix of Blairite and Thatcherite ideas - the belief that everyone should get a further education, even those unsuited to it, but also that it should be defined entirely in terms of the jobs it leads to. The whole thing is summed up in the name of the department where I saw the show - 'Creative Industries'.

No one can wish for a return for the days when people like my friend would have gone straight into an apprenticeship, or his father's trade, and no one believes more than me in the value of schooling as a good in itself - I've occasionally told first-year students that, approached properly, a university education should leave them less employable, not more (confuses the hell out of them). But I have to worry about those B. Tech. students - if education neither expands the mind nor focuses it, what is it good for?