Thursday, 6 December 2007

Pretending to be Other People

Andrew Field is, as usual, right, when he tells the world to stop getting so het up about perceived pretensions. (Andrew and I have got to stop cross-referencing each other so much, or people will start to talk.) For my money, though, he misses one major reason pretension is a good thing in the theatre.

The basis of almost all theatre is people pretending to be other people. Pretension is written into its very nature.

It gets very complicated, though, this pretending to be other people, when we start to think about it professionally. I'm not sure it was like that for the Elizabethans. I'm pretty sure they just got up and did their lines in a manner they hoped would prevent the audience, as far as possible, from throwing pies, starting fights, or shouting too much during the quiet bits. Stanislavski put paid to all that, if it wasn't on its way out already. From that point it became necessary, in order to pretend to be another person, to try to have a good idea of what it would be like to actually be that person.

And not just a good idea. Research. Truth. The Actual Objective Facts About People, even when those people and those "facts" are made up. Certainly in the British drama schools, this is the method of training which obtains today, a method heavily predicated on the assumption that there is a truth that can be got at, a truth that is usually considered to be inscribed in the text. There is a character in there, if only I can get it out. Like those weird guys with metal detectors, you may be looking for the treasure of the Sierra Madre, but you're mostly finding old Coke cans. Pretension is problematic when you tell us that what you've found is of value and most of us believe you.

This isn't acting, it's voodoo. When did pretending to be other people turn into trying to become other people? The search for truth seriously limits our options; isn't the credible much more interesting and broad than the true? Theatre is a space where we can make stuff up, where we can indulge in a collective let's pretend, where it's all a big fun game. Yet so much of the time we see shows, if you follow, pretending that they aren't pretending. Pretending it's actually real. As if somehow this will dignify the practice of let's pretend. You're chasing shadows, doing this. You'll never succeed in convincing me that something that's not real is real, because I know it's not. I'm not an idiot. I've got ten GCSEs, and that's more than I need to see through this one. Stop wasting your energy, and instead try to convince me that something incredible is credible. Ask me "what if...?"

I'm not saying that the act of pretending should be foregrounded the whole time, like with Forced Entertainment's gorilla suits and the Wooster Group's blackface. (Incidentally, if you're interested in the Woosters, you simply must check out George Hunka's excellent essay Ghosts in the Text and - another Field plug - Andrew Field's stuff on the Woosters' Hamlet in the blog linked to above.) I've greatly enjoyed work by both companies, but a theatrical diet based exclusively on such post-structuralist struggles with subjectivity would be thin gruel indeed. If all theatre were simply about theatre, I'd be too bored with it to bother thinking of an end to thi

If there's a problem endemic in contemporary theatre, if there's a problem with this culture of literary management that people seem to get worked up about, it's a different kind of earnestness. Much of comptemporary work is obsessed with telling stories. No bad thing in itself. But it doesn't tell them, it exhibits them - an artist exhibiting a painting doesn't actually need to be in the same room as those appreciating it, but an actor does. Why pretend otherwise? We should give back some primacy to the simple pleasure of pretending. Pretending to be other people is fun and watching people pretending to be other people is fun, too.

Brecht felt that by stopping bothering to pretend that what's going on in the theatre is real, the reality of what the play referred to would be felt all the more. It's a bit pat to suggest that by pulling away the scales of theatrical illusion, our eyes also learn to correct for the distortions of that other great deceiver, capitalism. But it's certainly true that if all our interpretive energy is directed towards trying to catch people out in a lie or an inconsistency, then our attention might more productively be directed elsewhere.

I leave you with Sir Ian McKellen on the subject:


Andrew Field said...

Amusingly, Alison C has just mistaken me for you on my own blog, my attempts at passing myself of as Mr Danni L. Brye (Theatre maker, architect of dreams and part-time gentleman of leisure) have been more succesful than even I could imagine...

Also, inevitably, agree with the above. Will comment with slightly more rigour when I'm wasting my own time rather than work's.

Alison Croggon said...

Aaargh! It was late, it was hot, my brain fell out... many apologies to both of you.

danbye said...

There are so many worse people to be mistaken for that I really don't mind at all.