Sunday, December 21, 2014

Joan Littlewood and the development of Collective Theatre and the Theatre Workshop

Joan Littlewood and the development of Collective Theatre and the Theatre Workshop

Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) was an extraordinary visionary and revolutionary in twentieth century British theatre. She led a revolution in British theatre in the late 1940’s through until the late 1960’s and continued this work into children’s and community theatre in the 1970’s. 

In the early 1930's, Littlewood graduated from RADA but her detest of 'cosy theatre' meant that she left straight away to travel to Paris and learn more about European theatre. In 1933, she returned to manchester and worked a little in Rep theatre in Manchester and worked at BBC Radio where she worked on a radio documentary about the building of the Mersey Tunnel and it is while working on this project that she met musician and author Ewan MacColl and joined the Socialist Theatre of Action.

The two were refused visas to visit the Soviet Union so instead they started to work on their own manifesto for a 'Theatre of Action' which included many of the ideas of theatre as the battleground between the oppressor and the oppressed expressed later by Brazilian Augusto Boal. These ideas were then transferred to the development of Littlewood and MacColl of the Theatre Union. The Theatre Union's work concentrated on an Agit-Prop style of theatre similar to that Piscator developed in his theatre in Germany.

Although the Theatre Union disbanded on the outbreak of the Second World War, Littlewood worked during this time for the BBC on radio documentaries. In 1945, at Kendal, her third and last company, the Theatre Workshop, was established to create original, frequently political, plays, and to put fresh, again frequently political, slants on the classics. She was a Left-wing visionary, who founded in 1945 a company called Theatre Workshop, which acted as a theatre collective more than a company. The Theatre Workshop collective aimed its work at working-class audiences in the North of England. Gerry Raffles was its administrator, and profits were split equally. Joan Littlewood and Raffles fell in love, and her marriage to MacColl was dissolved.

Using Bertolt Brecht's principles well before Brecht had been heard of in Britain or the West, Joan Littlewood applied these principles to all aspects of her work and the creation of the collective. The Theatre Workshop became a long lasting, self-contained company with its own writers, director, designers and philosophy and developed its own style of working processes, staging and style of acting which had elements of Epic Theatre but eventually developed its own distinctive form of Collective and Proletariat theatre.

The most successful productions included Ewan MacColl's version of Hasek's The Good Soldier Schweik (1957), Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow (1957) and The Hostage (1958) Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (1958), Frank Norman and Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be (1959), Stephen Lewis's Sparrers Can't Sing (1960) and the collective’s most famous piece Oh! What A Lovely War (1963).

In creating her own style of British Proletariat theatre, Littlewood drew on working class British performing arts forms such as the music hall, popular songs, vaudeville, stand up comedy, jokes, asides and satire. This gave her theatre a spontaneity and freshness filled with character. Littlewood’s own character infused itself in theatre and the image of Littlewood, the chain-smoking, toothy woman in a woolly hat with an eagerness to disconcert the middle-classes, particularly those who liked straight, respectable plays with beginnings, middles and ends, resonates through this period.

The late 1960’s saw the depletion of the resources and elements of her collective which she tried to steer away from the trappings and pitfalls of commercial theatre. Joan Littlewood saw her dream of a working class theatre slipping away and her move to the East End with its cheap, refurbished and charming little late-Victorian playhouse, staging song-and-dance plays for the local people dissipated when the local people never came, though they lived within yards of the Theatre Royal with its convivial bar and barrels of draught beer, and someone at the piano to lead the sing-song before the show. People from further west on the other hand went in hordes, in their furs and smart cars. The trek eastwards was a tribute to the vitality, vulgarity and originality of Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop.

Gerry Raffles had taken care of all things domestic in Joan Littlewood's life - cooking, chauffeuring, even buying her clothes and giving her pocket money. When he died in 1975, she walked out of the collective and the Theatre Royal, never to return.

Joan then moved to and lived quietly in France, where Raffles had died.
There she enjoyed a close, though not romantic, friendship with Baron Philippe de Rothschild, until his death in 1988. She called him "Guv" and his chateau a stable. Eccentric to the last when Playboy came to interview the Baron in 1986, Joan came down to dinner wearing two bedraggled rabbit ears and a pompom for a tail.

Take a scene or a song from Oh, What a Lovely War and work with intergrating the various theatre styles in the piece to reinforce the political messages of the scene. When in doubt use the song 'Oh, What a Lovely War!' to create your piece.

Oh! It's a Lovely War!
"Oh, oh, oh it's a lovely war. 
Who wouldn't be a soldier, eh? 
Oh it's a shame to take the pay. 
As soon as reveille has gone we feel just as heavy as lead, 
but we never get up till the sergeant brings our breakfast up to bed. 
Oh, oh, oh, it's a lovely war. 
What do we want with eggs and ham when we've got plum and apple jam? 
Form fours. Right turn. How shall we spend the money we earn? Oh, oh, oh it's a lovely war. 

When does a soldier grumble? When does he make a fuss? 
No one is more contented in all the world than us. 
Oh it's a cushy life, boys, really we love it so: 
Once a fellow was sent on leave and simply refused to go. 

Come to the cookhouse door, boys, sniff the lovely stew. 
Who is it says the colonel gets better grub than you? 
Any complaints this morning? Do we complain? Not we. 
What's the matter with lumps of onion floating around the tea? 

Try to stage a scene or a song from the play using at the ideas presented from the following Black-Eyed Theatre production notes at:

Goorney, H. & MacColl, E. (1990). Agit-Prop to Theatre Workshop: Political Playscripts, 1930-50. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press.

Littlewood, J. (2003). Joan's Book: The Autobiography of Joan Littlewood. London: Methuen.

MacColl, E. (1990). Journeyman: An Autobiography. London: Sidgwick & Jackson.


Saturday, December 20, 2014

Ariane Mnouchkine and New Wave Theatre

Ariane Mnouchkine and New Wave Theatre

Ariane Mnouchkine is a Female French theatre director who was born in 1939 and founded the Paris avante garde ensemble called Theatre de Soleil.  

After studying Psychology in the UK, Mnouchkine returned to Paris to work with Jacque Lecoq. By 1964, she had formed her own theatre collective called Theatre de Soleil  (Theatre of the Sun) where she tried to create a more universal theatre which uses different styles and she attempted to create social and political critiques of local and world cultures.
Mnouchkine created a hybrid theatre which used aspects of physical theatre and her processes were centred in her belief in theatre as a truely collaborative art form. She wanted to create a theatre that moved beyond playwrights and directors and move to a form of theatre "... where it will be possible for everyone to collaborate without there being directors, technicians, and so on, in the old sense." She and her company develop their works using many techniques. Sometimes the troupe developed ideas out of improvisational exercises. They also incorporated multiple styles of theatre in their work - ranging from Ancient Greek rituals to commedia del arte to Asian rituals and theatre styles like Kabuki and Kathakali and Chinese theatre traditions.
Her company, Théâtre du Soleil would perform productions often in found spaces like barns or gymnasiums because Mnouchkine does not like being confined to a typical stage. Similarly, she feels theatre cannot be restricted with the "fourth wall". When audiences enter a Mnouchkine production, they will often find the actors preparing (putting on makeup, getting into costume) right before their eyes.
Mnouchkine developed her own works, like the political-themed 1789, but on the whole she is known for her recontextualisation of the works of others through working on classical texts, like Moliere’s Tartuffe (1979), Shakespeare’s Richard II and Twelfth Night (1981-1984) and the Ancient Greek Oresteia Trilogy (1990-1992). Since 2000, she has worked on recontextualising the work of Ibsen and she won the Ibsen Award in 2009.
Mnouchkine encourages company members and audiences to think of the stage as a sacred space. Productions always include the ritual of performers putting their makeup and costumes on in front of the audience. Rehearsals usually last for six months and since casting is based on improvisational sessions it can take weeks or months to determine. During the rehearsal process pictures and books are used to stimulate thoughts and responses about characters and the development of sets, lighting, costumes, styles of makeup, masks, sound and music. Like Brecht, Mnouchkine sees the actor as primarily a storyteller and performances by Theatre du Soleil are therefore highly physical and often demand athletic and acrobatic skills. Actors are also required to represent and convey strong emotions and images by recognising what Mnouchkine calls ‘the state'. Basic states can change according to circumstances, but every actor is encouraged to locate and depict a central feeling that dominates the physical and emotional life of a character before exploring such changes.
In keeping with the utopian ideals of the company, Theatre du Soleil's work is non-militant yet socially and politically relevant. The company has remained a uniquely collaborative project and all members of the group perform a variety of  technical, artistic and menial tasks. Her motto is often seen as “…In the morning sweep the floor, in the day write the poetry and in the evening find poetry in sweeping the floor…”
Take a play or a scene from a play such as Aristophanes' Lysistrata. Talk about the general themes such as women being the victims of war and women trying to find a way to bring peace in the midst of continuous war. Discuss the differences between men and women. Collect modern articles on war and the way that women are victims of war and try to bring about peace.

Now take a scene from the play Lysistrata and try to rewrite, intersperse or collage the material from the recent news and articles into the original text and try to create a modern version of the Lysistrata script.

You may also want to take your group to a 'found' space and see what type of performance of your version of the Lysistrata story might be 'suggested' or 'informed' by the space.

Chambers, C., ed.(2002) The Continuum Companion to Twentieth Century Theatre. Continuum. London.
Kierander, A. (1993) Ariane Mnouchkine. Cambridge UP, Cambridge.
Leiter, S.L. (1994). The Great Stage Directors: 100 Distinguished Careers of the Theater. New York: Facts on File,
Williams, D. ed. (1998) Collaborative Theatre: Le Theatre du Soleil Sourcebook. Routledge. London.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Schechner and Environmental Theatre

Schechner (1934-Now) and Environmental Theatre

Schechner is a American director, writer, theorist and academic who founded the Performance Group in 1968 and invented a form of theatre called Environmental Theatre and also helped to invented the theory of Performance Studies that advocates that all research (even outside the Performing Arts) has a performative aspect. 

Schechner shaped the space or theatre to conform to each play and its themes and the internal space or environment of the text. Sometimes sets were constructed in front of the audience. Sets often used multilevel platforms, balconies, ramps, and scaffolds surrounding a stage that encroached on the audience’s territory, providing a wider range of space for the actors and a greater flexibility of interaction between the audience and performers. The audience of the environmental theatre was invited, even expected, to participate. The Commune, one of Schechner’s first theatre companies, asked the audience’s removal to remove their shoes before entering the space. 

To enhance the immediacy of experience the multiple-focus theatre replaced the traditional single focus, allowing more than one scene to be staged at the same time. The concept of environmental theatre was taken to greater extremes by radical artistic groups as the Bread and Puppet Theatre (U.S based) and Welfare State International (U.K. then internationally-based). Both took art to the streets, often working in derelict urban neighborhoods in the latter half of the 20th century and at the beginning of the 21st.

    This first exercise is about “letting the space have its say”. Students find a space in the room which they want to explore. Students start with a ball of their own energy and they establish this and then throw their imaginary ball around and off the surfaces of the space. Let the space and sense of the space control the movement of the imaginary ball. This response is ‘haptic’ (meaning to touch or influence). Schechner advocates through the senses to create a feeling for space.
    As an extension to this, students can ‘narrate’ the space. This is where a person or person acts as the ‘voice’ of the space and tells the students who come into the space what to do in the space. The ‘voice of the space’ can also react to what is being done to him or her by the other students moving in the space i.e. each step can be like a hurt or each touch of a surface can be like a caress.
    Another exercise is the use of Rasaboxes or Sanskrit ‘Emotion Boxes’. Nine areas are drawn on the floor in the space. Workshop participants move within the boxes, jumping from one emotional state to the other and at times engaging interactively.

Any of these exercises can be used with text. Schechner had a fondness for the text of Edward Albee. Use the following text from 'Whose Afraid of Virginia Woolf?'

Fix me a drink.
Haven't you had enough?
I said fix me a drink!
Well, I don't suppose a nightcap
would kill either of us.
A nightcap? Are you kidding? We've got guests.
Got what?
Yeah, guests. People.
We've got guests coming over.
Good Lord, Martha, do you know what time it is?
Who's coming over?

References and Resources - Schechner