Monday, July 07, 2008

Resource #6: Impossible Plays

I tend to be a little cautious about reading books about the English theatre post-Look Back in Anger, not because the books are not enjoyable and inspiring, but because they cause a great deal of envy in my American heart. A book such as Catherine Itzin's Stages in the Revolution (now, apparently out of print), which I read during grad school, had me so jazzed that I was nearly insufferable, demanding to know of my fellow grad students why we didn't have a stronger sense of purpose to our art. (Yes, some things never change.)  While Impossible Plays: Adventures with the Cottlesloe Company by playwright Keith Dewhurst and actor Jack Shepherd is equally inspiring, it is so in a more elegiac way. In many ways, this book is a trip down memory lane for the two authors, both of whom were central to  Bill Bryden's Cottlesloe Theatre Company that performed as an ensemble within  the Royal National Theatre during Peter Hall's tenure. Shepherd and Dewhurst alternate chapters, describing the creation, the creators, and the rehearsal room shenanigans of some of the most interesting productions of the 1980's, most notably (or perhaps simply most well-known), the three-part The Mysteries based on the medieval mystery plays.

The title of the book is drawn from a term originally coined by Jack Shepherd and defined by director Bill Bryden as"an idea that has no basis in drama: no evident narrative; no dialogue," and whose "scope [or] vision" for the piece, according to Shepherd, "far exceeded the means at our disposal." These plays were often adapted from novels or histories, and resulted in productions such as Lark Rise (based on Flora Thompson's autobiographical novel of English village life at the turn of the 20th century) , The World Turned Upside Down (based on the history of the English Civil War), Pirates and others.

The Cottlesloe Company was comprised mostly of hard-drinking male artists with a working class background (sometimes referred to disparagingly by outsiders as the "rugby team," and known among themselves as "The Beasts") who focused on the creation of a "popular theatre" using folk music and what they called "promenade" staging, in which the action moved in and around the often-standing audience. If you ever get an opportunity to see the video of The Mysteries, the power of this approach is evident even in recorded form. What comes through the anecdotes most powerfully is a sense of vision and commitment, a purpose to what they were doing, and the faith and funding of Peter Hall necessary to create dynamic work. Unlike our one-and-done system of play production, the ensemble was the source of inspiration, and the ongoing relationships created the means to build on experiments and discoveries. This is truly experimental theatre, in the scientific sense of experiment being the development of a hypothesis and the tesing of that hypothesis in action, then building on what is learned to further develop understanding. "To have a flow of work," Dewhurst notes, "you need control." Indeed, this is the definition of artistic vision: the vision necessary to create something new, and the control needed to see it through.

And continuity is equally important. "We were  a company by then," Shepherd writes, "for better or for worse. Most of us had been working together regularly for six years, and on and off for thirteen. We knew each other's strengths and weakness. And crucially, in the group scenes, we knew precisely when to take the focus on stage and when to give it to somebody else. It was this ensemble playing that made the productions so successful. Companies are so short-lived these days that true ensemble playing is something audiences rarely see." Future theatre tribe members should take note. "People came to see the cpmany," Shepherd continues, "the way it worked, not the individuals within it. We were a kind of organism, each actor relating to the other, giving and taking focus on stage in the twinkling of an eye." The closest I have come to seeing this ensemble effect in action was in the work of another company, Steppenwolf, in August: Osage County, and it was breathtaking.

There was a strong commitment among all of the Cottlesloe artists toward the development of a popular theatre. This was based on a strong belief that "the humanity the artists and the audience have in common is more important than whatever divides them." According to Dewhurst, while the subject matter of popular theatre may often be historical, "its soul is tomorrow. It is about the spark that is in everyone, the feeling that they do not know how to express. It is about what people will rise to, and not what they will accept. It challenges the apathy that is the other side of acceptance. It is an act of faith. At the same time it is well aware that what it wishes to say must be comprehensible. Popular theatre beats its brains out to be accessible without loss of integrity, because that is the point: to combine what everyone can understand with the highest possible quality of writing, acting and production." Both Bryden and Dewhurst were inspired by the films of John Ford "because it demonstrates that what is artistically very serious can also be liked and understood as entertainment. The highest standards of writing, acting and directing can enhance, not deaden, the enjoyment. The audience can be united, even if they have different levels of appreciation, but there must be no cheap short-cuts to attract them. In that sense, popular theatre does imply a struggle for artistic integrity and a conflict with advertising-influenced low-common-denominator market values."

That is a powerful vision that contains enough challenges for a lifetime of artistic effort.

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