In the past 8 months, I have seen a total of 3 plays. 2 of which I only went to because friends invited me (and I wanted to see the friend, not the play). 1 of which could be more accurately described as a work-in-progress physical-theatre piece, but, hey, ‘play’, is easier.
At the end of the Edinburgh Fringe last year, I was so physically, mentally and emotionally wrung out by ‘The Theatre’ (big, booming English dramatic voice), that I vowed to give up on it entirely. It was a gut reaction and it shocked me in it’s intensity and also in it’s feeling of truth. People didn’t really take me seriously. I had been saying I wanted to be an actor since I was 12 years old. I had been doing amateur theatre since I was 8. My involvement in theatre seemed to be the defining aspect of my personality. But, I said it vehemently over and over, to anyone who would listen, at any time of the day: ‘I don’t think I want to do this anymore.’ On the night after opening, I told my brother, who had, of course, agreed to perform in my show, unpaid, and give up 6 weeks of his time rehearsing and performing. I think I was wearing a towel. I could have made that up. The main point is, it was awkward.
I hated the theatre with all the passion and vindictiveness of a scorned lover. I felt physically gouged by the utter indifference I had managed to elicit from ‘The Industry’ (sarcastic, drawling American voice). I ranted about the artificiality and superficiality of ‘The Business’ and about the trumped up charlatans who ran it or succeeded in it. I lectured about an industry obsessed with youth and beauty and gimmicks and the ‘next-big-thing’; an industry that wanted shock and awe and cheap outrage at the expense of things that were beautiful or delicate or intelligent. I stored up examples of an industry that was irrelevant and so far up it’s own arse it couldn’t see how little it mattered to the rest of humanity. An industry that thought it was dissecting philosophy and religion, but was actually peddling cheap entertainment, that was no longer all that cheap and certainly not that entertaining (hey, I have Netflix now). I rolled my eyes at artists who moaned on social media about not get a living wage. I fumed at my computer and did my best conservative voter imitation and demanded that these freeloaders get a real job and then see what the hell it was like. With a few notable exceptions for some truly decent friends, I hated on absolutely anyone and everyone that had a modicum of success in the ‘Theatre Industry’ over the past 8 months. And that includes your 12 year old niece who just played Dorothy in her primary school’s abridged version of ‘The Wizard of Oz’, where Toto is played by one of the kids from the Infants School wearing a headband with two floppy socks for dog ears.
All in all, it felt safer to avoid theatre for a little while. I didn’t want to become part of a news story which included phrases like ‘unprovoked angry ranting at a mostly elderly matinee audience’, ‘escorted outside’ and ‘public disorder charge’. Besides, I had been hurt by theatre’s complete indifference to me. It felt good to prove to myself exactly how insignificant I was. It felt good to hurt myself more, the way it sometimes feels good to push a bruise and feel that old ache renew itself. I gave up, and nobody cared. Nobody even noticed. I was absolutely nothing.
Being nothing was harder than I expected. Giving up on the defining aspect of your personality (see above paragraph) turns out not to be that easy. What does one do with one’s time now that one doesn’t not need to read the latest script or see the latest director’s latest masterpiece for the good of your theatrical education? What does one think about if it’s not the crafting of your current production? What does one hope for if it’s not for the success of your next project? What does one dream about if it’s not eventually getting a fully-funded tour to actual audiences in actual venues of some kind of project that you’re somehow part of?
Old devils kept tempting me. Friends would tell me I should set something up, put on a show, apply for a thing. Being in Berlin was both a blessing and a curse. No-one in ‘The Industry’ knew me in Berlin and I didn’t know them, so it was easy to avoid everything. I went into hibernation. But, at the same time, theatre was how I made friends. Everywhere I went in the world, it was theatre where I felt most comfortable. Sitting in my lovely Berlin apartment feeling lonely I would want to do a thing with a person. But I wouldn’t know what that thing could be, if it wasn’t theatre, and I didn’t know who that person was, if it wasn’t a theatre person.
Visiting a friend in West Berlin a little while ago, I glimpsed the beautiful art deco facade of the Schaubühne Theatre, all lit up, and I felt (along side of the heavy helping of sour grapes), an older, warmer glow of excitement and anticipation. I went to the theatre’s website to see if they had plays with English subtitles. They did. I found a show about women and history, that was in German and English, not on for a couple of months. I thought I could probably calm myself down sufficiently over the course of a couple of months to see a play.
A. and I sent to see that play last week. I wish I could tell you it was a complete turn around and I’m once again a theatre convert (and OF COURSE artists should have living wages!) but, no, it’s more complicated than that. It was, in so many ways, the worst things about contemporary theatre. A hasty, cobbled together script with nothing to say; gimmicky direction hamstrung by it’s obsession with the latest theatre fad (live filming of the action on stage! Watch theatre through a screen – you’ll feel so much more comfortable!); and set and costume that completely upstaged the actors (the lead actress really did have a very nice hat on). I left the theatre shaking with rage and ranted the whole way home. Don’t feel sorry for A. – he seemed to enjoy it (the ranting, that is, not the play. Lucky for him, his opinion aligned with mine, though perhaps less vehemently).
I am left with two tentative conclusions from this so-called ‘Theatre Detox’ and it’s subsequent breaking:
1) I think I am over the blackest part of my rage at theatre ‘in general’ and am ready to save the worst of my vengeance for specific examples of heinous theatre crimes. That’s not to say I forgive theatre. No, I still find the majority of productions on offer these days boring, derivative and full of themselves. But, I seem to be able to hope again, that somewhere out there, is a production that is genuinely great and wonderful.
2) The living I earn will never be related to theatre. But, in all honesty, I don’t know if I can give it up entirely. I don’t want to do am-dram, and a person of my age doesn’t have the energy for fringe unless they’re getting at least some kind of funding, so I don’t know exactly what I am left with. Something small. The opposite of ambitious. But, I don’t know what that looks like. I don’t know what the point of it is. I don’t know why I have this compulsion. I don’t like it. It feels self-obsessed and self-absorbed and attention-seeking. And, yet, I don’t seem to be able to kick the habit.