Sunday, May 19, 2013

Bristol Experimental Theatre Company

Martine Shackerley-Bennett is Artistic Director of Bristol Experimental Theatre Company, who is waiting for Arts Council support for their Brechtian-influenced work.
Theatre Writing South West asked Martine to reflect on their most recent production and explain why exploratory and experimental work of this nature is important to the theatre landscape.
Brechtian-style theatre is based on Bertolt Brecht’s theoretical work. Our plays are issue-led, exploring themes of reality and questioning different perceptions of the world view. The plays with their constantly changing perspectives encourage the audience to question their own understanding of the issues being presented.
Using archetypal characters in self-sustaining scenes which can be staged separately, minimal sets and strong visual imagery, the plays are accessible to a wide range of audiences. Emphasis is placed on comedy, satire and absurdity, providing entertainment and thoughtful productions. The actors demonstrate roles through their physicality, creating visual pictures which allow the audience to concentrate on the issue being explored.
The writing actively encourages interaction between audience and actors in a thoughtful exploration, rather than seeking an emotional response. Although each scene stands alone they are connected by the issue. There is no particular structure of time or place, with actors playing both female and male roles as determined by the script.
In the late nineteen sixties I studied improvisation with ‘The Committee’ under the directorship of Del Close in San Francisco. Working on stage and interacting with audiences exploring issues resonated with me. Back in London I worked with different theatre groups, including one in West Hampstead under the directorship of John Elsom.
Appearing in two highly successful plays where people were talking about acting rather than the issues prompted me to work on new areas of theatre. Performing with my Improvisation Theatre Company Thin Air in festivals, clubs, pubs and streets for twelve years gave me a good insight into what worked on stage.
Feminist Theatre influenced my style of writing, with their plays incorporating scenes with no historical accuracy and changing gender to explore issues more deeply. The emerging male dance groups in the eighties that influenced physical theatre also helped me develop my own creative style. Probably the playwright who has had the most influence on me was Samuel Beckett. Having left school at fifteen with no qualifications and been barely literate, his pared down language resonated with me, as did the absurd situations he created for his characters.
No contemporary playwright unfortunately has created the same stimulation I have had in watching plays by Pinter, Arden, Adamov, Simpson, Ionesco and Dario Fo. In my experience most of the modern playwrights I encounter are not seeking to develop new art forms but to achieve popular success. It seems such a narrow objective for any artist.
My interest in Brecht had deepened over the years, especially as I was contracted to teach ‘A’ level Theatre Studies and train young actors. In 1999 I formed Bristol Experimental Theatre and my first two plays Sex Games and Matching Outfit about identity, followed by Politica Erotica concerning censorship were first performed at The Alma Tavern and later at The Edinburgh Fringe Festival. They were acclaimed by national papers as radical new plays which stimulated me to develop this form. The following year Tomboys and Sex Objects, exploring issues of female violence and Naked Lies and Violent Messages exploring lesbian relationships went to Edinburgh. They were criticised by some press as setting feminism back thirty years, which helped me to put my writing into perspective: my approach was not readily accessible to individuals who want plot and character development.
Over the next few years I wrote and staged twenty three plays and two satirical revues, Madhouse and Messabout. The issues have been varied but have included Paedophilia, Domestic Violence, Object Relationship, Idol Worship, Transvestism, Bureaucracy, Bisexuality, Class, Culture and Integration.
Our most recent play Twitching Curtains explores the issues of secrets. It has nine scenes with seven commentaries between them, reflecting on what each situation has explored. Each scene stands alone and is linked by certain events and names. They all could be the same person in different roles or representative of everyman/woman.
The opening scene begins with a man and woman on a train discovering that they live on the same road and both have a wife called Margaret, who is very secretive. This ambiguity of their relationship lays the foundation of the play.
Next we are introduced to MI5 with two status-seeking individuals who have a bizarre method of finding terrorists – the scene ends when they both ring up their partner Margaret. We are then introduced to Margaret in a toilet which, unknown to her, is monitored by CCTV cameras. With direct dialogue to the audience and through a conversation on her mobile to her friend Angela she feels she is being watched.
The next scene has an MI5 interrogation officer bring in a suspect who is a transgendered male called Margaret; the next few scenes explore personal and government secrets revealing how they are manipulated and used by individuals, for emotional satisfaction, power and money.
The final scene brings the male and female back to the opening scene where, this time, they reveal that both their wives have been arrested on terrorist charges, with the final realisation that they have been married to the same women for eight years which she has kept a secret from both of them. Because the play has no story line and each scene is independent from the others - but linked by the issue and key words which reoccur - the audience has to concentrate, changing their perceptions constantly to make sense of what they are watching.
The audience response has been interesting, which is the word they most often use to describe what they have witnessed. A great deal of the lively conversations post-performance have been about what the plays have stimulated in the individual, many having different perceptions of what they have seen. A few individuals who have had difficulty with the pieces were those who wanted a straight-forward plot with character development. 

I personally find modern theatre tedious, especially the resurrection of old classics and musicals. Many modern plays follow social realism which, to my mind, are barely distinguishable from soaps. With the lack of real discussion about issues in the popular media and politicians' catchy sound-bites replacing thoughtful debate, there is a vacuum which I think theatre can adequately fill. The current mind-set of those in power urgently needs to be challenged as they take us into dangerous unchartered waters. Unless we can stimulate real debate, bring thinking back on the agenda and question ourselves about what society should value and shape our own lives, then the destruction being done on our planet may be irretrievable.

1 comment:

  1. It's been 47 years since I sold my first piece of Art. Admittedly, I have made a mess of the one opportunity I've had at Life. Art, I've crushed.