Never Properly Born: Why do we create theatre?

Three Kingdoms at Lyric Hammersmith

At the very end of King Lear (by that Shakespeare bloke) there is a spectacular snippet of verse that includes the line “speak what we feel, not what we ought to say”. If ever you could encapsulate a mantra for creating theatre then the Bard did it with that very simple piece of advice, but how readily can it be put into practice? Why SHOULD we be creating theatre?

A few weeks ago the question of “why are we doing what we’re doing?” came up in our current rehearsal process. Many of us had been to see Three Kingdoms and observed the reaction it caused in the theatrical community, with some even suggesting it could be the shape of British theatre to come. It was during this time that Vicky Featherstone was appointed as new Artistic Director of the Royal Court. With Featherstone’s reputation for stylised work, all signs seem to be indicating that the Court might be heading in a very particular direction.

This raised an interesting question for us as a company because of the work we’ve decided to create. From the beginning it was clear that we would be dedicated to staging works of realism. We knew we wanted to be a company grounded in the idea that “everything should be as in real life” (Anton Chekhov). As the company’s Artistic Director, this is what I have always believed in. I remember witnessing the works of Chekhov, Ibsen and O’Neil for the first time, and being mesmerised by the idea that someone would actually dare put such things on stage, work so bitterly real and uncompromising in its reality of human existence. However, with parts of the industry seemingly going in one direction (or yearning to do so), the question was raised as to whether we should follow our convictions or follow the crowd?

Of course, because we’re such an impudent bunch, we quickly said “fuck that” to the latter and carried on jauntily treading our selected path, but I do believe it’s easy to find yourself following the trends. It is tempting to make theatre just to please an audience or to make the right moves in an attempt to be ‘successful’.

Dennis Kelly recently questioned if such ambition was a bad thing or was in any way wrong. I’m here to suggest that it is. It is wrong because it deprives the audience of any risk; it deprives people of the heart and guts that make theatre. Without risk, without people doing what they truly want to do, we would never have had some of the arts’ greatest creations. We would never have had Waiting For Godot. Imagine that.

I believe there is also another damaging direction that theatre makers can be forced to follow: the pointless pursuit of originality.

Every submissions list that I can think of includes some variation of that ensnaring word: original. Each institution insists on “innovation” or “re-examination”, but what do they mean? Do our theatrical institutions expect us to create something unusual or provocative just to be original? What if we believe in something that, to their subjective eye, isn’t different? Should we give up now because we don’t want to “piss on the grave of the theatrical rule book”?

I say, forget that word, bury it, ignore it. Don’t try to be original or do something different. Do whatever you want to do because it excites you, because it grabs you in the gut and keeps you awake at night, because when you think about it you can’t stand still, you have to get up and move because it’s driving you forward, because the blood in your veins is moving that much more swiftly. Who cares if someone is already doing what you’re doing? Why not do to it better?

The preoccupation we have with originality is unnecessary and ultimately damaging. We shouldn’t be creating work to be original. We should just create work from our soul, the very core of our being and I can guarantee you that it will be original. It will be different without you even trying.

One of my drama school teachers – the effervescent Katya Benjamin – once said that “your gift is your own individuality”. What I took from that is that if you’re true to yourself, what you bring to the table is always going to be different, so how about we don’t worry about that word? Let’s discard it. Instead we should encourage theatre makers to do what they want, not what we think they should do.

I believe it is time to speak what we feel, not what we ought to say.

It is time to act first to desire your own good opinion.

It is time to stand up and be brave.

Written by artistic director Ash Rowbin.

Tickets for Shelter, the company’s first production, are now on sale at the Tristan Bates Theatre website or by phone on 020 7240 6283. Performances from 6 – 11 August.

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