I attended the Stephen Joseph Symposium organised by the drama department of Manchester University in early November. Stephen Joseph was one of the pioneers of 20th Century British Theatre. Although he authored six books, he is barely known, perhaps due to his early death at the age of 46. He was the first Fellow of the new Drama Department at Manchester University, appointed between 1962-67 by Professor Hugh Hunt. Stephen was one of the first practitioner-researchers working there, with a huge and long-lasting influence. His pioneering work centred literally on the "theatre-in-the round" promoting the idea of a "democratised" theatre, where the audience surrounds the actors. There is a certain closeness and intimacy between the actors and audience.
As part of the symposium, I had a chance to see several performances of Antigone by Sophocles in the round, directed by four different practicing directors, including Gwenda Hughes who worked at the New Vic in Stoke-on-Trent, as well as Matthew Xia, Elisabeth Newman and Teunkie van der Sluijs. This was illuminating for me, who has had few chances of seeing performances in the round, as it shed light on what works and what does not work. For example, too much action by too many actors in different sections of the round stage did not work for me. I wanted to see what happened to each property, each domestic action had to start and finish somewhere - like “Chekhov’s gun”*, for me each element of the play has to have a meaning and a purpose. On the other hand, good acting works, even when the actor’s back is turned to you.
I met separately, two of Stephen's biographers, Paul Elsam and Terry Lane, and many working actors and designers who studied with Stephen. Yes, I learnt a lot about Stephen Joseph and having heard some personal accounts by his students, I felt I wish, I had known the man.
My trip was supported by the Open University where I work as a lecturer of creative writing, as part of my staff development. SJ's teaching practice, which was completely centred on practice and theatre-making, provocative on many levels, would be difficult to realise in a university like the OU, where the tutors do not meet their students face to face. However, his passion for his subject which he expressed in actions as well as in his writings, was still palpable in the room, and it is still alive in his students, even after fifty years. Alumni talked about his "focus" and "infectious enthusiasm" and this is something I took with me as a reminder for my own teaching practice.
The Legacy of Stephen Joseph
Finding out about Stephen's work gave me new ideas about staging. I believe that theatre in the round works better with a small audience of maximum 150-200. It would be perfect for a travelling theatre and studio theatre types.
Just as in the nineteen-sixties, when Stephen Joseph was competing with the rising popularity of television, today's theatre makers are attempting to give new experiences to the audience that they cannot get in a cinema or in front of the telly at home. The theatre in the round has the natural capacity to provide an audience experience, which could be called “immersive” in modern terms.
I have had “immersive” experiences with Accidental Theatre, where in a promenade and participatory style the audience moved about the space with the actors. Similarly, at an ensemble performance of Mozart's Cosi Fan Tutti by Northern Ireland Opera, the audience was sitting in the middle of action at round tables.
The Vigszinhaz, in Budapest has had many “immersive” performances on the proscenium stage. I saw an adaptation of Bulgakov’s Master and Margerita, where I could smell the burnt flesh of Hell, which was cooked on the stage. The play had some wonderful moments, but not this. There was Margerita’s naked transformation, created with wind, flashing lights and plastic sheets, which I found exhilarating and moving. I am a bit worried about this trend of the commercial theatre, for I doubt that you really need to smell and taste everything that happens on stage in order to be "immersed". It verges on sensationalism. If you need cold winds and the smell of rotting flesh in order to feel the horror of the play, I fear the acting or the words lack power.
When we were in Manchester, we went to The Royal Exchange Theatre to see the stage adaptation of Derek Jarman’s film Jubilee. In this theatre in the round you get the real experience of the round on stage level, but taking a seat higher on either of the galleries will make you have to look down, like in an amphitheatre. I discovered that this is the largest theatre in the round in the UK, with a capacity of 760, had been designed by Richard Negri in 1976. Although the acting was good, and they used the first gallery for some of the action, I had little enjoyment looking down on the tops of the actors' heads from the upper gallery.
At a recent adaptation or better to say response, to Kafka's The Castle at the Peacock Theatre in Dublin a square stage was used, surrounded by the audience. The stage was higher than eye level, which actually alienated the viewers. If you had free movement, for example, and could have followed the actors to the other side of the stage, could have been more interesting. Of course, the distance between the actors and audience might have been intentional or the interpretation of "the Castle" and part of the director/designer duo's concept.
It is possible to explain a concept, but making it work is a different issue.
This brings me back to the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough that I wrote about in a previous blog entry. The Stephen Joseph Theatre can seat 400 in the round on different levels, and although I was sitting higher and further away from the stage, I had full view and enjoyment of Alan Ayckbourn’s new comedy A History of Women. “Sir Alan” as his acolytes like to call him, has been doing this for half a century and he is still the master of the “round”.
*"One must never place a loaded rifle on the stage if it isn't going to go off. It's wrong to make promises you don't mean to keep." Chekhov, letter to Aleksandr Semenovich Lazarev (pseudonym of A. S. Gruzinsky), 1 November 1889.