The Tiny Travelling Theatre
Posted on Sun 20 May 2012 by Ciaran McConville
There is something unforgettably intense, I think, about close proximity to an actor in performance.
I remember as a child going to the Museum of the Moving Image, now, sadly, an over-priced bar filled with shabby-chic furniture, desperate theatre directors and silly hairstyles. MOMI was, in my opinion, the best museum in London. What really made it special was that at any moment a character from the past might sidle up to you and talk about the latest innovations in film, from magic lanterns to digital effects. I remember at the age of twelve talking to an usherette from a 1940s Odeon, who actually cried as she told me about going to see Brief Encounter on a date with a boy (“Why couldn’t he kiss me like that? All he was interested in was having a grope in one of the double seats at the back.”) And I remember quite vividly being enlisted on the crew of the 1930s King Kong. I really believed, for a few incredible moments, that I was going to operate the crane on the most iconic monster movie ever made.
In 2004, I wrote a play for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, called These Four Walls. It was a solo piece in which a female inmate of Auschwitz says goodbye to the baby she’s managed to smuggle into a basement. It was a real laugh a minute, as you can imagine. The reviews were good, I’m pleased to say, although the audiences were often small. On one occasion, we let our front-of-house duties slip and the show somehow went up with an audience of one, a young woman. The actress entered the space and, without blinking, delivered the whole play to this one girl. At the end, the director and I both clapped as hard and as long as we reasonably could, but our audience of one sat there, staring into the middle distance, and didn’t move. We opened the door, put the house music on, coughed loudly – still nothing. Eventually, the director went up to her and said, “Are you okay?” at which point the girl burst into tears. It transpired that she was an Israeli student who had lost a generation of her family to the concentration camps. We bought her a drink and she asked to meet the actress, who sat down with her for a couple of hours and talked about, I don’t know, stuff.
This experience really stayed with me as a writer. Edinburgh is the best place to reconnect with audiences, because people talk to each other so much more easily than they do in London. You bump into the couple at Chocolate Soup who you met last night after the show, and you talk about what’s good to see. But that performance in particular marked an important moment for me, because my ambition had always been to write for the biggest audience possible, and yet this reaction to one of my plays, from a lone audience member, was the most profound I’ve ever known.
Punchdrunk’s megahit The Masque of the Red Death offered many extraordinary one-to-one moments, in addition to its larger theatrical narrative. I saw the show twice. The first time I was led away from the masked audience into a library annex where a girl told me that there was a room in my heart I could always go to and spent the next five minutes describing it, before laying a white feather in my hand and telling me to go back out into the world. I put my mask back on, joined the crowd, and found that I couldn’t stop crying. The second time, I was dragged into a tiny cupboard by the character of Madeleine from the Edgar Allen Poe story, The House of Usher. Crouched in that claustrophobic compartment, lit only by a candle, she took off my mask and kissed me. The ticket might have cost £30, but I do remember thinking that was great value for money.
I guess there’s a voyeuristic element to experiences like this, the sense of peeping through forbidden windows into secret worlds, of something dangerous and forbidden. And they offer an encounter with something ‘else’, a moment of stepping out of the back of a wardrobe into a snowy forest, or tip-toeing downstairs on Christmas Eve to find a drunken Father Christmas staggering around your front room. Perhaps it’s something that keys into the psychology of childhood fantasy. I don’t know. Whatever it is, it’s immediate, visceral and, at its best, unforgettable.
There is, of course, a fashion driven by apparent patterns in arts funding for interactive, site-specific, intimate theatre. I think we should probably be careful that this movement doesn’t invalidate our need for the next big state-of-the-nation play. Playwrights should work on stories they believe in, with fearlessness and ambition, and silence the producer's voice that chips away over their shoulder. I always tell my students the apocryphal (or at least, much exaggerated) story of the first night of Death of a Salesman on Broadway. The story goes that Arthur Miller was waiting in the wings through the last act of the play, desperately anxious to know how this critique of the American dream would be received by a bourgeois audience draped in mink and perfume. The curtain came down after those incredible last lines, “We’re free … we’re free.” And the actors came out for the curtain call to complete silence. Miller thought it was all over for him. After an interminable moment, someone started to clap, then someone else, and the sound grew and grew and everyone was on their feet and the actors didn’t know what to do and Miller was brought on stage to find himself at the centre of a key event in American cultural history. For forty-five minutes, no one left the theatre. Forty-five minutes of chauffeurs blocking the street outside, whilst audience members talked to each other about how moving they found the play.
I don’t really care how true that story is. For me it’s a possibility that we shouldn’t let go of. There is nothing to replace the feeling of a shared experience in a darkened room with hundreds of people you’ve never met. And whatever fashion there is for ‘interactive, experiential theatre’, it mustn’t be at the cost of theatres like the Rose, where classic plays continue to enthral large crowds. In the current climate we have to fight as much for those great masterpieces as we do for new writing.
The one-to-one encounters are not necessarily to everyone’s taste, either. I was in a show at the Southwark Playhouse called Beyond the Pale, in which audiences were invited to take part in a story set in an apocalyptic urban slum deep under the railway arches. It was nothing if not atmospheric. I played the well-meaning director of a homeless shelter. On our press night, a certain theatre critic who shall remain anonymous (although her name sounds a bit like Bin Lardner) followed my opening gambit by putting down her newspaper and saying, “Oh, you’re one of the actors, are you?” She then took every opportunity to find the exits in our immersive set that led backstage: “Oh, am I not supposed to go through here? Sorry.” I don’t think she really entered into the spirit of the piece. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that she hated the spirit of the piece.
But you have to love the critics.
A couple of weeks ago, theatre company Bad Physics asked me to write a play for the Tiny Travelling Theatre, the idea of which, as I understand it, comes from a seventeenth-century Clerkenwell merchant, who transformed the room above his coal-shed into a miniscule music hall. The studio and think tank, aberrant architecture, has created a mobile theatre that will visit Clerkenwell Design Week (22 May to 24 May). The theatre has a capacity of six. And I think I may have reduced that by two, because I asked for actors. A capacity of four. That would certainly make life easier at the Rose Theatre, wouldn’t it?
I chose to write a modern-day take on the story of Mary and Joseph. The plays I’ve written for Bad Physics in the past have been entirely silly. Our last project was an interactive ghost story called Crooked Little House, set in one of the disused rooms of the Battersea Arts Centre. The audience was asked to take part in a time-sensitive séance and at a certain point the lights went off and all sorts of paranormal nastiness took over. Whilst it was a technical challenge for the director and magic consultant (how I love that we had a magic consultant), the play itself contained all the complexity and depth of an episode of Scooby Doo.
Recently, I saw Enda Walsh’s one-man comedy at the National Theatre, Misterman, and loved the darkness of it, the way it slipped so effortlessly into pathos. I suppose my play for the Tiny Travelling Theatre, called Miracleboy (and now I look at the title and see where I got it from) is a pale homage to that. There is something endearing about the total powerlessness and near-irrelevance of Joseph to which I think most dads can relate. And at the heart of Mary's story is a bereavement that she simply can't let go of, because it lives in every mention of her child. The play also casts the audience in the role of Magi. It occurred to me that the wisest of men would be good at listening to Mary’s story and resist the urge to heckle. I do hope the audience feels the same way.
It’s a small piece, an encounter, something that I hope in some way is shaped by my experiences at the Museum of the Moving Image twenty-five years ago. I wrote it with that intensity in mind, the excitement of peeping into private stories and unearthly worlds. I’m a little bit proud of it, in fact. Am I allowed to say that? Despite the fact that I make a few disparaging comments about Nigella mums (which I think cut to the very heart of all our societal crises) I can’t claim it as the next great state-of-the-nation theatre masterpiece, but at least I can be relatively confident that it will sell out. And that’s a first for me.