Chris Goode responds to the provocation 'One Idea That Could Change Our Theatrical Landscape'. This is the transcript of the speech he gave at the first of the RADAR platforms. It can also be listened to here:
I’m writing a book at the moment. Which, of course, is partly to say that I’m not. I mean I sort of am. I’m at the stage where you sit in a Turkish café for hours on end with a Moleskine quadrille notebook and a lot of tea and very little else.
I’m trying to write about how the ways in which we imagine the cultural space of theatre can shape our sense of what we think we can use theatre to do. If, indeed, we think we want to “use” theatre to do anything at all, other than entertain and delight: which are not objectives to be despised.
For my part, though, I do want to use theatre to do things with. For it to be not merely a recreational space in the sense of it being just another leisure option or lifestyle choice, but for it to be somewhere we gather together for the purposes and the pleasures of re-creation. Of thinking together about who we are and what else we could be if we could create new possibilities for ourselves and our social relationships.
Working on this book has thrown up a myriad of questions, some dismally overfamiliar, some newly emerging. Most of them about dissatisfaction, about the things I feel I’m not doing that I want to do. And the more I’ve thought about these dozens of different questions, the more they’ve all pointed in the same direction.
Towards the magnetic north of an idea which has been in my head for some time, one that has seemed all the more pressing since I started on the book and even more so since the invitation came from Madani to name that one idea that could change everything. It’s an idea I’ve toyed with and shrunk from. I think of it as our ‘third rail’: but I suppose it’s not that, because I’ve never really heard anyone else raise the question. But now perhaps it’s time to voice it and see what happens.
I think it’s time we all stopped making things.
I’m going to say that again a slightly different way.
I think it’s time we all stopped making things.
What are the things that we make? We call them plays, except for those of us to whom that’s a tricky word. We call them shows, but that has connotations of its own. We call them pieces, if we don’t mind being secretly thought of as wankers.
We quite quickly run out of language for them, as anyone who’s ever tried to write marketing copy will surely know. For the purposes of this discussion I’m going to call them plays, but I also mean shows, and pieces. I mean anything with a title, and a
designated author, and tickets at the box office with that title written on them. When we talk about making theatre, quite often this is what we think we mean.
Sometimes when I’m sitting in the Turkish café – it’s one particular café on Stoke Newington High Street – I raise my eyes from my basically blank Moleskine quadrille notebook and look up at the wall, on which are stencilled a number of quotations about coffee and having dinner and hanging out. And there’s one that always catches
my eye. It’s attributed to ‘Turkish anonymous’ (which sounds like a support group):
and this is what it says:
One neither desires coffee nor a coffeehouse. One desires to talk with others, coffee is merely but an excuse.
The translation is a little peculiar and strenuous but the point is well-made. And it’s my point too.
When we talk, as theatre makers, when we really talk about why we do what we do, we almost always talk about relationships. About communicating, connecting.
Looking and listening and leaning in. About sharing: sharing ideas, sharing space.
About exchange and experiment and play as in play. About spending time together, and the value of witnessing, and testimony, and paying attention to things. Reaching towards each other across a gap. We talk about desire, and intimacy, and our strangeness to each other and our familiarity. And we talk about liveness, our
experience of theatre as a special place because it plays host to the ephemeral and the evanescent such that no other medium of record or mode of storage can ever really hope to capture the promise it makes in its present moment.
That’s what we talk about when we really talk about theatre. But most of the time we’re in a small-talk mode of gossip and ticket sales and reviews and competition and success versus failure. And underneath that small-talk is what we don’t talk about, except silently to ourselves. Our fear, our vulnerability, our precariousness.
The awesome fragility of what we do when we’re at our best and our most at-risk.
When we really talk, we talk about relationships. When we’re not really talking, we talk about the object-like things that serve as our pretext. The plays, the shows, the pieces that, one at a time, in a strange single file, stand in for the proliferant totality of what we want.
I wonder how easily you could come up with a list of your ten favourite plays. Or shows or pieces. Even as I mention it you can probably feel it begininng to form in your head. Maybe you could rattle it off just like that.
I’m not going to tell you my ten favourite plays. I’m going to give you another list.
Here are ten things that it’s possible to do in your life.
Walking slowly in a park on a cold autumn day with a friend who knows that he doesn’t have long to live.
As a little kid, planting a row of lettuces in your dad’s garden and being amazed when they actually grow and you can pick them and eat them for tea.
A band of really good musicians you’ve never met before inviting you to sit in and play piano with them, and it all just works like a dream.
Sitting with two old friends and laughing together till you cry and it’s painful and you’re begging, hang on, just a minute, just a minute...
Looking at the stars in the night sky through the open roof of a water chalet on the coast of Malaysia.
Being magnificently, ravishingly fucked by a man you love who in the morning is going to get on a plane and go away for a while.
Going to an art gallery and losing all track of time sitting in front of a painting that’s ever-so-quietly telling you stories of distant cities and singing your own secrets back to you.
As a teenager, not quite feeling brave enough to hold hands with your boyfriend in a public place, and just as you’re thinking that and wanting it so badly, him then reaching out and taking your hand. And nobody minding, and the two of you walking on air.
Singing Christmas carols with a bunch of random friends and friends-of-friends and their friends and some friendly-looking strangers.
Going out for a Sunday afternoon stroll in an unfamiliar bit of countryside and completely misreading the map and getting back four hours later than you intended.
I know these are things it’s possible to do in your life because I’ve done all of them.
You will have your own equivalent list.
Two things that these events all have in common. One, I can imagine remembering any or all of them in the moments before I die. I think I can say the same about maybe one of my ten favourite plays. Two, I can’t imagine it being possible for any of those events to be reviewed in a national daily newspaper. Let alone given a star
We come to theatre because we want better, more creative, more meaningful relationships with each other – and with people we don’t know yet. We want relationships but we fixate on the thing, the object, the play. It’s like we’re trying to reach our destination by gluing the map all over the inside of the windscreen. The
relationship and the object are not just different layers of the same experience. They are pulling with all their might against each other. Dissidence and autonomy and the integrity of human contact in a stupid tug-of-war against the business-as-usual of the tradeable commodity.
By insisting on the primacy of the object, and hoping that the right relationships will somehow arise out of it, we condemn ourselves to a working life (which in our case also means a desiring life, a dreaming life) lived entirely within the structures and the strictures of the marketplace. The socially abundant work we came here to do gets stuffed inside a reproducible effigy of itself.
We condemn ourselves to a monotonous rhythm of new product releases, whose newness has to be just new enough to satisfy marketing channels and review platforms so that potential audiences can be alerted, but not so new that horses are
frightened and words fail us and we end up patronized as mavericks and wackjobs.
We condemn ourselves to writing half-truths to sell shows that don’t exist yet, confecting images that refer to nothing more than a plausible compromise we can imagine making with people we’ve never met, but on whose behalf we will worry, because we are gulled into assuming that they’re probably slightly less clever than we are. We make objects – scripts, designs, lighting and sound plots, seating plans, brochures, buildings, café bars, contracts, funding arrangements, supporter schemes, merchandise, Malteser outlets, live streams and cinema broadcasts, even literary policies and Writers Guild guidelines – we make all these things so as to
neutralise as far as possible the potential risk of everything we wanted in the first place. We can’t just look at each other. So we look at a book, we look at the money changing hands, we look at reviews and blog posts. We hold on tight to our drinks in the bar. Because if we ever actually did what we showed up to do, we could lose it all.
My producer Ric Watts and I started Chris Goode and Company just over eighteen months ago, but before that, there was another conversation. I wanted an ensemble:
not permanent, fluid, but prizing continuity and seeking long relationships full of growth and exploration and support. We would work together as much as we could. But we wouldn’t make things. We’d just work together. There would still be public performances. There would still be text, there would still be storytelling, there
would still be craft, there would still be apparatus, and music and lights and even proscenium arches sometimes and Maltesers. But no titles. Just the date of the performance. No obligation to do the same thing tonight as we did last night, nor to promise to do the same tomorrow night. But to let the work always be about the moment of its coming into being. With, not just in front of, an audience. Spontaneous, vigilant, acutely responsive. And deeply and radically sensitive to and stimulated by the idea that what happens in theatre is always a kind of making. Not showing.
Not insulating itself in the permissiveness of spectacle and representation. Not making the thing, but making the space for something to happen in. Making space for the open need and want of people in a room who have nothing left with which to suppress or sublimate their fear, their vulnerability, their precariousness. Their desire, their strangeness, their will to lean towards each other.
Chris Goode and Company is not that ensemble, though some traces of its aspirations are still detectable in the quiet of the night. The strongest feeling to persist is that I mostly think rehearsal is much more interesting than performance, and I’m continually wanting to open up rehearsal and share processes with audiences and with other partners in dialogue and collaboration. In projects like 9 and Open House we’ve sought to scuff the distinctions between process and product, and artist and audience. We got quite close to realizing a dream I’ve long had of making 24-hour rolling theatre where an audience would just come and go. I’d still like to do that. And I’d like to go a lot further. I hope we will.
I want to finish by taking something back. I don’t really want to call the objects that we make, and around which we gather and become mesmerised producers and consumers, ‘plays’. To be honest, mostly I think of what I make as ‘pieces’. I know that makes me a wanker. (That’s all right: wanking is some of the least mendacious work I do.) So this is the question. If what I make, if what we make, are ‘pieces’, then what’s the whole of which each of those pieces is a piece? And how can I make the work that I share with audiences, and with my fellow artists, representative in every case of the whole of what I want? Socially, politically, sexually. What are the theatrical forms and structures that will enable me to want in public everything I want in private?
The question I’m really asking is, how can I give you more?