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29 September 2008
The Live Art Almanac: a radical look at how theatre should work

Lyn Gardner: The Guardian

Deadly serious ... Simon Casson. Photograph: David Sillitoe

What would theatre be like if Pina Bausch was asked to work with lap dancers in Shoreditch and Simon McBurney commissioned to create spectacles outside black garage and grime clubs?

What about getting Michael Barrymore working with Robert Lepage and encouraging the National Theatre to do a residency in Heaven? How about banning all the best choreographers from working at The Place and Laban and commissioning them to make pieces for shopping centres? How about closing down all the new writing theatres?

These aren't my ideas, but those of Duckie producer Simon Casson, expressed last year in a letter to the McMaster Review team considering the question of excellence in British theatre.

Casson's letter, deadly serious in its emphasis on the audience but also mischievous in construction, can be read in full in a terrific book, The Live Art Almanac, a collection of "found" writing around and about live art which was published a couple of months back by the Live Arts Development Agency.

Drawn from published and unpublished material, the Live Art Almanac offers both a snapshot of the cultural landscape - it includes my piece for The Guardian on Lone Twin's Spiral and reviews and obituaries from other journalists - but is at its very best when it provides an opportunity to hear artists and producers thinking out loud about the very nature of performance, the role of the audience and asking what is this strange, exhilarating thing called theatre and performance.

So besides Casson suggesting that "lottery-funded theatre should be made specifically for people who buy lottery tickets", there are plenty of other gems here including Tim Etchells's opening polemic at the 2007 Spill symposium in which he talks about the "magnetic attraction of the stage's edge" and the desire to step off it. He talks eloquently of "the desire to step off the stage - at once an attempt to escape and exceed representation" and of "the resilient yet endlessly permeable border between the space designed for play and pretending and what's known as the real world."

Like many of the pieces published here there is a radical agenda in Etchell's salvo, a suggestion that we must "reinvent theatre in order that it accommodate more. To smash some seats, perhaps, to make more room." Among other suggestions, he argues that the theatre he wants to see is "a theatre that places you in a world rather than describing one to you". I'd second that.

As you will have gathered, many of the pieces are provocations. Nick Ridout's piece You, the Spectator begins by stating, "Theatre, of course, is rubbish. It happens in the evenings, when there are more exciting things to do, and it does go on a bit." But my favourite in the book is Arnolfini producer Helen Cole's beautiful letter addressed to Dear Artist and signed Love Audience that outlines the bargain between the two parties. Here's a small extract: "When I come to see a show by you, I want to be shown things I would not have the opportunity to see anywhere else. I want to discover new possibilities that I could not find without you… In return, I will be attentive in the dark and make you aware I'm there. I will react to anything you throw at me with interest, compassion and belief. I will be awake to possibility, especially the untested and untried." It's a neat reminder that this thing called theatre only happens when artists and audiences come together in a fragile, constantly changing and shared partnership and are open to the needs and alert to the possibilities that each offer.

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