Arts Week 2017: Dematerialising Theatre with Andy Smith

This post was contributed by Elinor Perry-Smith

glass-of-waterSeeing this remarkable event and hearing Andy Smith talk about his experience and practice gave this particular playwright much to consider. Don’t get me wrong: I love props and spectacle in theatre. There’s something quite magical and transporting about well-thought props and costumes. Also the way in which actors embody the characters we create and say the word we have written for them to speak. But even so, where does the ‘theatre’ actually take place?

Andy Smith averred to an enthusiastic audience at Birkbeck’s Arts Week that it takes place in the audience. That the action, the drama, is not just unfolding in front of the audience, it is taking place inside them as well. To that end, the audience therefore (as I understand it) becomes part of the performance. This privileges audience experience and involvement of course, and makes the performance an exciting phenomenon, evolving before our very eyes, ears, minds and hearts, changing with each performance because the audience changes each time and therefore brings a different set of reactions, sensibilities, and willingness (or not) to participate.

Andy Smith himself is open, warm and funny yet I felt that dematerialised theatre has the potential for psychodynamic effect in all its participants and therefore may not be for everyone. Of course, I could be wrong about this. Andy used a cooking analogy: dematerialised theatre is like a sauce reducing and reducing. The result may not be to everyone’s taste. One phrase certainly stuck with me. It’s not about ‘less is more’ but about doing ‘more with less’. Props and people become representational of objects. Is it any less authentic a ‘performance’ than Robert De Niro wearing underpants made by Al Capone’s underwear maker?

Conversely, how does all this change the experience of the playwright, producers and actors of such a piece? Andy spoke of how plays might be performed by non-actors with scripts in hand and no prop above the size of a show; without the distractions of elaborate props, the attention is sharply focused on the action of the play and the feelings it engenders in the audience. I suppose a cinematic equivalent would be the ‘Dogme’ films where only natural light and sound is allowed. Or even the stage-like markings of Lars Von Trier’s Dogville and Manderlay, where the audience is compelled to imagine the sets.

Andy demonstrated dematerialised theatre to the audience, who willingly participated in the impromptu ‘performance’ that started with the transformation of a glass of water into a tree and ended with an audience member transforming into Miss Julie. It seemed to this participant that it spoke to a very primal understanding of story. One that developed in our earliest days as hunter-gatherers when stories and drama were orally enacted and so our imaginations broadened exponentially as a result. It was utterly fascinating to witness and certainly gave me the urge to research the whole process further.

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