I spoke to Nisha Madhan, Artistic Director of The Town Centre, a month or so back about the theatre she’s making, what interests her, and what she’d encountered being a maker of experimental work or live art in New Zealand.
Nisha spoke to Jo Randerson, Artistic Director of Barbarian Productions, and amongst many other things they discussed some strange responses a recent touring Melbourne performance work had received amongst reviewers, and the growing need for artists to get together to discuss this territory of work themselves.
From these discussions, Nisha, Jo and myself decided to use the time that Nisha and Julia Croft were in Wellington with their two feminist works (TITLED and If There's Not Dancing At The Revolution I'm Not Coming) to collaboratively facilitate a conversation with Wellington theatre makers about new performance work. Nisha’s main intention, instead of getting bogged down in industry or business context, was to lead a forward-looking discussion about intentions, inspirations and challenges in the work.
Language. It struck me on Saturday that theatre makers have a love/hate relationship with the permanence of words. There’s something about theatre’s ephemerality which draws us to this form. Therefore the relative fixity of language always presents an interesting negotiation; one which 20 or so Wellington and Auckland theatre makers had a really rich time wrangling with at BATS on Saturday 16th April.
The following is a fairly rough meandering reflection of the discussion, intended purely as a document for interested parties who weren't able to make it. It's naturally process-focussed and inward facing. I hope it provides some insight into some of the interesting territories covered.
Nisha opened the session by describing her intention to formalise discussions that were already happening with those companies in Wellington that The Town Centre felt a kind of connection to, such as Barbarian and Binge Culture. ‘I sort of feel that the work I’m making, it doesn’t comfortably sit in theatre and it doesn’t sit comfortably in dance. I couldn’t really call it performance art. It’s a little bit towards live art, and I recognise it happening around the country and I think it’s a really good thing, and I’d like us to be able to find some language to be able to talk about it, so that it gets stronger. And that's why I thought a discussion like this could be really helpful’.
Kate and Jo introduced themselves and their intersections of interest with this work (for Jo, the intersection of feminist practice and live art, and for Kate, having been in Melbourne where this work is layered and rich, to activate discussion about it in New Zealand) and together on butchers' paper, everyone wrote down some words that arose for them, which could be returned to, when hearing words such as ‘performance art / live art / feminist dramaturgy / expanded dramaturgy’.
A common word for lots of people was ‘process’ - this kind work being one that is really conscious of process. We started discussing this in relation to Nisha’s work, TITLED. Collaboration is a term all theatre makers use, but how does the shape of collaboration inform this work? Nisha noted ‘I couldn’t really pull apart who came up with what, when. When I say collaboration, I mean collaboration in the way that it's not just individuals doing their job. Each offer impinges on the other persons offer’.
What was the starting point for TITLED?
‘It's the fourth iteration of a question I had around what the contract was between performer and audience and if the contract was changeable, what would it look like. I wanted to deal with the frustrations of bureaucracy and kind of jump into those frustrations and find a perverse pleasure in it, and at the same time completely break it and try and make a contract with the audience that’s more like a 'blood brothers' pact. I wanted to look each audience member in the face and make a pact with them and make that the contract. And I guess that is maybe to do with my search for liveness. I guess I started with a concrete ‘contract’ and then I wanted to find something that was way more fundamental and human than that’.
Poppy Serano, one of Nisha’s collaborators on TITLED, noted that the process of her coming on board with the work was a constant negotiation - there was sometimes frustration in trying to work out the best ways of working and finding ways of starting by not necessarily imposing existing working structures. With aims to work outside a traditional hierarchy of roles, Nisha and Poppy and collaborators are constantly looking for new ways to be able to work with each other.
Jo spoke about words often associated with feminist work. ‘Idiosyncratic’. ‘Eccentric’. Not necessarily ‘unique’ or ‘original’. And often there are terms around the work ‘that can lead to expectations or understandings or diminishings of what the work is’. For example, if companies make work in a community hall or a school room, there can be assumption that aesthetic and professionalism is not a concern of the process, when it very much is. ‘So I really like what you were saying Nisha about wanting to build some terminology or planks so you can feel strong about what that work is, because there's a really determined craft in there…it’s not just random’.
Nisha discussed the fact her work is so reliant on the participation of an audience, therefore often making it hard to rehearse. ‘I want to make something that can’t work without an audience. Like, I don’t know why it's a live performance without audience. I feel like I need you there. I need you to exist’.
Tom Lahood discussed this and ‘the encounter’ being a core purpose of the work:
Tom noted layers of iterations are essential to the work. Setting working questions and in each iteration checking back on these - ‘did that do what I thought it might do or did it do something even more interesting?’ Feedback loops. ‘Its just a testing-based process’.
Nisha noted that this is the experimentation at the heart of the work, and connecting back to assumptions around terms, how often ‘experimental’ can be a dirty word. ‘I really want to claim it back. I don’t set out to make experimental work - I set out to make work and there’s a question that I have. It’s got ‘random’ attached to it, but I’m being really particular about these questions. I think success and failure in association with ‘experimental’ all get a bit stitched up and I don’t know if they’re useful at the moment’. She noted how live performance can and should exist everywhere, not simply in dedicated theatre spaces.
This opened a discussion around success and failure as connected to space. Stephen Bain noted how he thinks about space as a maker:
Kate noted that on the subject of failure there is a real tradition in this work of the poetics of failure and setting up impossibilities, which feels like a strong strain in Julia Croft’s If There’s Not Dancing At The Revolution I’m Not Coming. Julia noted, ‘We really consciously wanted the work to be task-based to get away from this thing that was pretending to be an encounter or pretending to be genuine, or I’m pretending to have emotions in front of you. Actually I’ll rub onions in my eyes and then there’s something real happening in the room’. She noted that the encounter becomes real when ‘I’m really trying and I’m never going to get there’. (A core touchstone also within clown work).
Julia discussed the fact that as a female performer she is really interested in mess; that much of the work she sees in Auckland is really slick, which is something as a maker she’s not interested in. This lead her to talk about ‘unfinishedness’ being a facet of both Nisha and Julia’s work and the links between our desire for completeness and certainty or ‘truth’ and the pull for her as a maker to sit in doubt and the multiplicity of voices, the disagreements and the mess.
Nisha connected this to the idea of resistance which is tied to a feminist politic - a useful part of the work for her. Jo added a layer to what resistance could mean in this instance:
Jo discussed that once again, this was about increasing the terminology and vocabulary that can be utilised. ‘Like task-based - I didn’t actually know that phrase, that’s a cool phrase’. Jo and Kate spoke about discursive words Kate had raised in an initial conversation. These were some umbrella terms from the introduction of New Dramaturgy, a book edited by Bernadette Cochrane and Katalin Trencsényi, which offered some great seeds for thinking when approaching this work.
Those terms are:
From New Dramaturgy eds. Katalin Trencsényi and Bernadette Cochrane, Bloomsbury, 2014:
We understand ‘post-mimetic’ that the work acknowledges and recognises they decline of mimesis as the dominant dramatic model and, by extension, the decline of representational theatre culture. This acknowledgement doesn’t necessarily mean refusal, or the absence of representation, nevertheless, it acknowledges a distancing (sometimes melancholic, sometimes ironic) from the mimetic theatre tradition.
By ‘interculturalism’ we understand that we no longer live in a monolithic culture, but are surrounded by multiple value systems and cultures which are often intertwined, and between which we negotiate; and this is reflected in the processes and the products of theatre-making....We consider interdisciplinarity as being part of interculturalism - it is an exchange between different knowledge systems and the cultures of those self-same knowledge systems.
Finally, by being 'process-conscious’ we understand that when creating a piece of theatre, the way it is made, the process’s ethics, aesthetics, ecology etc., become dramaturgical concerns, as they inform and shape the materiality of the production.
Kate also discussed a common thread in live art being the rejection of virtuosity. This is a touchstone in the work of many companies - Forced Entertainment of course comes to mind, and Ranters Theatre in Melbourne. We’re so trained to applaud the well-done - what is it when we break this? Nisha noted that in a life in which we’re constantly making mistakes, she has a distrust of work that has no space for fuck ups - it’s harder to relate to things that aren’t messy, because humans are messy.
It was noted that literary plays still very much use this as fodder - our errors and disconnects - but interestingly these ideas are packaged in a structured way. Julia noted that in this territory the form is so much part of the story; the form is a lot more fluid and is carrying meaning.
Poppy spoke about the notion of the ‘problem solving economy’ - something she has encountered working with Auckland theatre maker Alice Canton. The tendency that the creator needs to solve the problem so that the audience will have an answer, or that the thing that will be presented will make explicit sense. It provides challenges, especially when approaching resolutions or endings.
Adding to this, Stephen spoke about working with a dancer and our unconscious structural modes that certain theatre traditions leave traces of:
Kate picked up on something Poppy had said about being academic about the work and noted how there are interesting waves of knowledge and practice in this work in NZ. This work is not new - companies like the aforementioned Forced Entertainment began in the early 80s and were feeding off performance art that was happening in the 70s. In New Zealand we have people aware of this work on an international scale but in our own country it has always remained very much on the fringes or underground.
Tom also raised that this connects to a lack of understanding about the whakapapa of this work in New Zealand and often assumptions that work is harking back to old forms when in fact it could be drawing on these forms as an ongoing journey.
Jo referred to Kate’s blog piece about criticism in NZ and discussed why it’s important for artists themselves to support the work as makers who are steeped in its particular dramaturgical concerns; an invitation for artists to step forward really positively into that realm.
It was discussed that if critic and practitioner are two sides of the triangle then the audience is of course the third, and that all this language is important for us, but it still needs to live onstage. Someone else noted that ‘not everyone has to like it’. Yet that it helps if artist and audience have a few similar frames of reference.
The idea of reception was extended by Stephen, ’You have to remember that… if you came up to me and you gave me a free ticket to a Warriors game, I still won’t go. I still won’t go because I just don’t want to do it right? And in the same sense I think we tend to feel a little bit like because we’re all doing theatre, we want everyone to like all the theatre. But nah. I don’t want the same audience as other people and for everyone to like all the same things. It’s quite good to do things that people just don’t like or has a completely different audience - there’s strength in that’.
Julia noted that in her experience often the more responsive audience members will be those not from a theatre background. ’Often I make assumptions about what ‘the public’ as a mass will like or won’t get and I’m often really wrong’.
Jo discussed that acknowledgement of multiplicity is a feminist strategy. ‘Like multiple voices, multiple audiences, theres no ‘one’, theres no ‘us’ and ‘other’. It’s multiple, its diverse. And it’s what Jean Betts always says - the important thing is to just make sure that the audience who want to see your work, know about your work and can access your work, financially, or where you place it in the city’.
Nisha wrapped up the session and further discussion extended afterwards. The act of coming together and discussing these connections as groups of makers with similar preoccupations is really important. Here’s to much more.