We’ve all heard of the media-circus-cum-bookselling-vehicle that is the Hay Literary Festival. Every year, thousands of journos, writers, presenters, comedians, media types and other representitives of the middle class descend on a tiny village on the Welsh border for a festival which, let’s be honest, is little more than a souped-up book fair.
Just down the road, however (and nestled within the village itself), How The Light Gets In offers a far more cerebral approach. Styled as a festival of “philosophy and music”, with the tagline “think.talk.dance.play” (though it might as well be ‘work hard, play hard’), this far younger gathering (it only started around half a decade ago) isn’t afraid to discuss knotty, complex ideas with an audiences who properly listens. John Kearns, who performed last week, wasn’t far off when he spluttered disbelievingly that “you guys are the fringe of the Hay Festival. How alternative do you want to be?”
I was honoured to be asked along this year to host a Q&A with Anthony Neilson entitled “Tomorrow Stories”, which attempted to consider how storytelling may change with the advent of the internet. Talking about the ending of The Sopranos, multi-tab narratives, cat videos, threading, transmedia, Season 4 of Arrested Development and episodic plotting immediately took me back to Narrative last year, which remains one of the best renderings of the effect of the internet I’ve yet encountered. It wasn’t even a play about the internet, and yet Neilson and his cast managed to create a show which exactly mirrored the experience of being online, and in the light of our discussion last week now seems more than ever a manifesto of how we may tell – and consume – stories in the future.
During the Q&A (before the audience began asking questions which, I should add, were far superior to mine), I asked Anthony whether his process also feeds into this idea of multiplicity, allowing a variety of voices to be heard as he writes the piece throughout rehearsals. Interestingly, he was clear that he still holds authorial control even though company members help to shape the text (his argument, it’s worth noting, isn’t about The Death of The Author in any real sense).
This, again, comes back to the idea of multi-tab browsing. Using an example given by Anthony, an old task like checking emails, now becomes a far more complex affair. As we log on, we might check the news, the weather and Facebook all before logging onto our email account. Then, after following a YouTube link on an email from a friend, we go down a bit of a rabbit-hole, clicking from stand-up comedy to political lecturing to humorous animation before going back to emails, where the process starts all over again. The email tab is always open – the ‘super-narrative’ always remains in the background – but we go off on tangents along the way before coming back to complete that particular story. In line with Neilson’s thoughts about authorial control, we are the master of these tabs and tangents, and though they might include a variety of articles, podcasts and videos created by dozens of people, it is the person with the mouse who is God.
We also talked briefly about how the internet may have changed our idea of death and ‘endings’, as each of us becomes ever-more immortal and stories fail to finish with the same finality as they did in the past. We look at ourselves and interact with the world differently, so stories must – almost by necessity – change accordingly.
This was then followed by a debate on ‘Beauty is Truth’ chaired by Sean Curran between Neilson, Sophie Fiennes (director of those brilliant Žižek documentaries) and particle physicist Jon Butterworth (who I only know from his appearances on The Infinite Monkey Cage). Fascinating ideas about taste, nature, art, science and ugliness were all discussed, but what struck me more than anything was the inquisitiveness of this audience; it’s not easy to be attentive in a cold hall in a muddy field on a Wednesday lunchtime, but there’s a strange charge running through How The Light Gets In which sets everyone’s brains on fire.
Then, on the way back to Hereford station, I had a lovely chat with Liz, who had spent her week ferrying philosophers, feminists, political advisers, scientists, novelists, activists, playwrights and musicians to and from the village and relayed some anecdotes which would make your hair curl.
Only in Hay.
To play out, a song from Tom Hickox, who played on Tuesday night.
Photo: BuzzMag (it was a lot less sunny last week, and all the grass had essentially turned to mud)