Book Review: ‘Theatre Making’ by Duška Radosavljević

*Originally written for A Younger Theatre*

The title of Duška Radosavljević’s Theatre-making would, you’d expect, refer to professionals who actively do the making, creating works of art for others to experience. And it is, in a big way, about these people. Central to Radosavljević’s argument, however, is the idea that practitioners aren’t the only people who are making theatre. By focussing on work like Tim Crouch’s The Author, Ontroerend Goed’s Internal and Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms, Theatre-making presents the notion of audience as co-creators, so that by the end of this hugely readable study, the title takes on a whole new meaning; all of us are discovered to be theatre-makers, no matter what our relationship to the piece in question.

The subtitle to Radosavljević’s book is The Interplay Between Text and Performance in the 21st Century, which throws up another parallel but not entirely unrelated strand to her argument, as the imagined boundary between a written text and the watched performance is demonstrated to be arbitrary and, eventually, non-existent. By considering the ways in which a text may be “translated” or “transformed” for the stage, Radosavljević destroys the “page to stage” epithet by questioning whether a dictatorial attitude on the part of the text shuns the idea of text and performance as two separate things. One of the main missions of Theatre-making is to deconstruct the idea that “text-based” and “devising” practices are two different things. They have – at least in part – been delineated for political means; the distrust from many mainstream critics with regards to devising practice comes about from the fact that this method has more in common with some Eastern European theatre cultures than our own, representing for some the not-to-be-trusted ‘Eastern bloc’ of a pre-1989 Europe. Radosavljević explains that, due to its original emphasis on collective political action, devised work is seen by many as representative of a defunct and broken system and is written off as not being true to any ‘author’. When we recognise that this is a false binary, however, and consider how a “theatre language” speaks just as much as the written word, all sorts of possibilities become clear.

In the Introduction to Theatre-Making, Radosavljević considers where text-based practices may originate (the pre-1989 East/West divide and theatre education, for instance) and briefly contemplates the idea of a “feedback loop” between audience and performer, which ends up being referred to throughout. Chapter 1 focuses “on the relationship between text and performance in the process of staging a play”, throwing up issues surrounding “adapting”, “translating” or “transforming” a textual artefact into a theatrical production before going into greater detail on that particular idea in Chapter 2. The following chapter then goes on to question the status of so-called “New Writing” in the UK and its various implications, highlighting the ways in which dramaturgical processes threaten to become ideological and bringing attention to the debate between ‘mainstream critics’ and ‘bloggers’ with regards to Sebastian Nübling’s production of Simon Stephens’ Three Kingdoms at the Lyric Hammersmith in 2012. A rereading of Brecht’s ideas of spectatorship, theory in rehearsals and core intentions in Chapter 4 then questions the relationship between text and performance in verbatim and documentary theatre, bringing back ideas of “translation” with regards to ‘reality’. The final chapter then introduces ideas of “porous dramaturgy”, “being-in-common” and “being together” found (or not) in the work of Ontroerend Goed, Shadow Casters and Tim Crouch in order to “[transcend] the notion of hierarchy between text and performance and [draw] attention to the process of communication and of the meaning being communicated by a mutually constructed theatrical metaphor”.

One idea which Radosavljević come to time and time again is that of “theatrical genealogies”, whereby we can trace the ‘family tree’, as it were, of any given practitioner or production. By offering up links between, for example, the work of Emma Rice and her experience in Polish theatre, we are thereby able to better understand the ways in which artists ‘talk’ to one another across countries and continents, giving us the tools to create similar links ourselves. Indeed, the book itself fits into a genealogy which sees the likes of Hans-Thies Lehmann’s Postdramatic Theatre coming before it.

Though academic, Theatre-making is also highly readable, offering clear, concise case studies and – at times – a somewhat playful tone to make its point. Citations and quotes make you want to go and find out the original source, like a book-based Wikipedia, forever moving from one idea to the next so you get lost in this web of theatrical history (there are also absorbing interviews with Tim Crouch and Simon Stephens and a ‘text’ of Ontroerend Goed’s Internal in the form of appendices). Inevitably, this means the actual reading of the book takes longer than you’d imagine by its length, but that doesn’t make it a slog by any stretch of the imagination. Instead, pop cultural references and mainstream criticism is woven among academic literature and complex philosophy in a way which mimics the thrust of Radosavljević’s overarching argument.

At a recent Critics’ Circle Conference, a couple of makers and critics voiced the opinion that the future of theatre is in “co-creation”, both literally and figuratively, which is the same conclusion that Radosavljević comes to at the end of Theatre-making. By showing “a certain interdependence of various modes of authorship in the twenty-first century”, the question of “Who is the ultimate author in theatre?” is posed, which suggests that the age-old British practice of playwright-as-king is being challenged. In 2013 and beyond, we are all theatre-makers, and though there may always be someone in the drivers’ seat, the future lies in a collective body deciding on where the journey takes us.

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