It’s all getting a bit meta: We Are Proud to Present…

We Are Proud to Present… sees a group of actors gather to tell the story of a genocide. The thing is they never quite make it out of the rehearsal room. As the actors struggle to represent a history that they don’t fully understand, this play-within-a-play (or, for accuracy’s sake, a presentation-within-a-play-outwith-a-rehearsal-for-a-play-within-a-play…) becomes far more than an earnest theatrical presentation of historical tragedy. Through its metatheatrical form, We Are Proud to Present… opens up a dialogue about artistic collaboration, creative egos, and the limits and power of theatre in commemorating and examining history.

But what exactly is metatheatre? When was it invented? And which playwrights have practiced it?

It was Lionel Abel who first coined the term ‘metatheatre’ in 1963 to describe theatre which draws attention to itself as a work of dramatic art; it has since become widely recognised as a form which challenges theatre as a simple replication of life on stage. It’s also been around for quite some time, certainly since before the ’60s. Let’s have a look at some of the key metatheatrical players…

Yes, the Bard was a master of metatheatre (he was hardly maintaining the fourth wall with all those soliloquies). In A Midsummer Night’s Dream metatheatre is used to comedic effect with Bottom and the Mechanics’ play-within-a-play. InHamlet metatheatre develops into tragic revelation as the Prince of Denmark contemplates the artifice of theatre and those around him.

Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author
This one has a nice link to the six actors in search of a way to tell a story in We Are Proud to Present…. Pirandello’s 1921 play sees metatheatre take a violent and deathly turn when six actors interrupt a rehearsal and force a theatre company to stage their unwritten play. Will the earnest intentions of We Are Proud to Present… actors meet such volatile ends?

Bertolt Brecht & Epic Theatre
Anyone who has studied Drama will have covered this German playwright and practitioner whose Epic Theatre sought to entertain and educate an active, thinking audience. Reacting against the theatrical realism and spectacle of Stanislavski, Brecht strove to strip back all theatrical artifice – placing actors, costume, props and music on stage throughout and removing suspense with the outcome of scenes described before they started. His was a theatre that didn’t ask what was happening, but why and how those events were taking place. Similarly Jackie Sibblies Drury has said that the use of a presentation in We Are Proud to Present… was motivated by her ‘want[ing] everyone to know about the genocide already, so that we’re instead talking about how we’re thinking of it’.

Cush Jumbo’s Josephine & I
Jumping forward to last summer, and one of our own! In her tour de force one woman play Josephine & I, Cush Jumbo intertwined the life story of jazz icon Josephine Baker with a meta-theatrical version of her own life story, finding resonances in issues of race and gender across the years via a mix of autobiography and fiction.

For example, in one scene Jumbo as Josephine Baker recounts the racist reviews that greeted her return to Broadway from Paris in the 1930s. “Blacks do not belong on stage. This production is a disgrace and nobody wants to see it or its black whore on stage.”

And then a beat…

“Observer newspaper comments page, December 2012,” says Jumbo, shrugging off Baker to become herself.

It was posted while she was starring in Julius Caesar at the Donmar Warehouse. The past is left behind with a horrifying lurch.

This is the power of Metatheatre. It is a form that forever reinvents itself as it speaks to the artifice of theatre and to the reality of its moment. It gets audiences laughing until we realise just how implicated we all are. From Friday you’ll have the chance to see the power it packs in We Are Proud to Present…!

Written by Chloe Davies, Marketing and Development Intern.