A new Theatre company challenges the idea of a cultural hierarchy and aspires to make work that is intelligent and provocative without being exclusive.
The joy of theatre is it’s ability to cater to everybody regardless of wealth, status, wit or ambition and throughout the course of history the theatre audience has stretched across the width and breadth of the social classes. However, despite this potential, much theatre is exclusive by nature, and in Britain at least, the idea of a “legitimate” theatre is something that still persists. Certain types of theatrical performance, usually those that appeal to the masses, are often deemed as “low-culture” and there still exists an arbitrary division between the theatrical forms. A remnant from The Licensing Act 1737, which drew legal distinctions between low-brow entertainments and so-called “serious” theatre, there remains an enduring sense that comedies, musicals, cabarets and puppet shows (to name a few) are somehow less sophisticated than other forms of theatre.
This concept of “legitimate” or “serious” theatre is by nature an exclusive notion and it is one that many performers still rally against. Matt Rudkin, co-founder of the company, Inconvenient Spoof, is one such performer. Hailing from an art background, Rudkin is painfully conscious of the proclivity towards pretension that much “serious” work can have: “There are certain kinds of work that are referential, and if you don’t have that fine art knowledge, you can’t possibly understand it or appreciate it in the same way as somebody who does.” It is this type of exclusivity that Inconvenient Spoof seeks to avoid in the work that they produce and along with his partner, Silvia Mercurali, Rudkin aims to challenge the concept of a cultural hierarchy, in which theatre only serves the needs of a select few. “Personally, I’m not motivated to make work for the art-informed elite. I’m interested in the kind of communitas, the sense of a shared collective experience that you get with something like street theatre for example, which a lot of people generally don’t have a high regard for.”
Although much theatre has its origins in the street, street performance is one of those theatrical forms generally aligned with “illegimitate” theatre. However, it is arguably the most democratic form of theatre, as performers are literally performing to “the man on the street” and not even a lack of money is an obstruction to observing the show. Rudkin comes from a background of street performance and is of the opinion that this concept of “high culture” does not have any real bearing on quality: “Obviously there is a lot of poor street theatre, but just in the same way that there is a lot of poor experimental live art.” The audience should not feel excluded by the notion of “art” and art and entertainment need not exist separately from one another: art should operate at the common level.
Rudkin speaks of a desire to create theatre that is inclusive, and at its most basic level, entertaining: “We wanted it to be something that people would simply enjoy.” The entertaining aspect of theatre is, Rudkin feels, something that can be lost in the search for “art.” He recalls visiting the National Review of Live Art as a student and realising that, although everybody there was interesting, the work itself was of limited appeal: “I remember thinking that hardly any of it was giving me any enjoyment or any experience that I value. At a certain point there was a choice to make: do I continue to go and see this work because I have faith that there is something important about it? Or do I say, look, it’s not working for me?” He chose the latter, challenging the notion that art must be meaningful and suggesting instead that it can simply be enjoyable.
This is not to say that the work Inconvenient Spoof produces is without complexity: their show, Dean Gibbons and the Knowledge of Death, is a detailed observation on the peak oil crisis and aims to introduce the audience to the very real environmental problems facing us today. The show is part lecture and “it’s very informative in terms of scientific theories to do with evolutionary psychology and peak oil.” Rudkin is interested in the “architecture of the mind” and aims to present academic concepts in an entertaining manner: the performance utilises an abundance of theatrical techniques including puppetry, video and physical theatre in an attempt “to make the surface as interesting as possible.”
Although Rudkin admits that he would like the audience to take something informative from the show, at its core, is a simple desire to entertain. The performance is partially a lecture, but “it’s definitely a comedy” and Rudkin is ardent that the audience walk out of the performance not wondering if they enjoyed it, but knowing for certain that they did. This ambition to create a fully inclusive show, which entertains and offers what Rudkin calls “the most valued experience,” is admirable, but also troublesome. Whilst the unusual structure of Dean Gibbons and the Knowledge of Death makes it appealing to a wider audience and challenges the notion of a differing cultural value between theatrical styles, it is also the thing that may well encourage an exclusive audience. Paradoxically, it is likely to be only the “theatre-going” audience that will be comfortable with attending the “experimental” show. Perhaps only the theatrical elite are concerned enough about theatre to go out of their way to discover these smaller, more ambitious theatre groups that aim to diversify and blur the artistic boundaries.
Rudkin is aware of this dilemma and suggests that it is a question of marketing: “I think that it’s a festival show. A festival show is where a lot of different people are there to see something new and there’s quite a lot of opportunity to attract people who say, ‘Well alright, they’re going, I’ll go.’” However, this idea of a “festival show” brings with it the same conflict: the sort of people who go to a festival such as The Edinburgh Festival Fringe and who watch theatre with the intent of seeing something new, are arguably, already part of an exclusive group. It’s an impossible bind and a form such as street theatre only avoids this problem by taking the performance to the audience rather than waiting for an audience to enter the theatrical space.
Britain has a dynamic and vibrant theatre scene though, and the sheer abundance of these smaller, more experimental shows across the country inspires hope that they will manage to access a wider, more inclusive audience. There are an astounding number of small, innovative theatre companies working across the UK today and these, along with the black box studios and the smaller theatre spaces, form the lifeblood of the British theatre scene. It is wonderful that fresh and inspiring work continues to be produced on the secondary stages at theatres around the country, but often these productions are supported by the income from shows with more mass appeal: often “serious” theatre and pantomimes.
Sadly, taking street-style theatre off the street and into the theatre often has the effect of making it potentially less inclusive than the more traditional theatrical shows. Such a show acquires an air of “experimental” theatre and, contrarily, may appear more pretentious than the high-brow “legitimate” performance to the non theatre-goer. Inconvenient Spoof aims to combat this, stating: “It’s a challenge for us in terms of our publicity and our marketing.” For Rudkin, it is also about not restricting the length of the run – shows with a short-run inevitably suggest exclusivity, like a limited batch of special-edition champagne: “I don’t like the idea that you work for a year on a show that you do four times. Or a show that requires so much money that it’s not practical to keep it going.” The ideal show is one that is simple, enjoyable and transportable.
With the spending review and the budget cuts to the arts, this straightforward approach to theatre is likely to become more necessary. Unfortunately, it may well also be the small spaces and the new shows that suffer, but on the other hand, theatre will be forced to trim down the frills and get back to that most fundamental of performance ideals: to entertain. Exclusivity will no longer be an option.
Dean Gibbons and the Knowledge of Death was on at Camden People’s Theatre, London until the 11 December 2010 and then moved to The Hawth, Crawley for more performances in 2011. www.inconvenientspoof.co.uk