MAKE SOME NOISE
When I was about 10 yrs old my family and I ended up at a banger racing event after spotting a field full of cars from the road on our way to Brighton beach. Our spur of the moment decision to investigate the field began a love affair that lasted many years. The banger races took place on a dry dirt track in a small field surrounded by spectators sitting on their cars on one side, and a natural grass bank covered with people on the other side. The whole event had a very unofficial feel, like perhaps it wasn’t allowed to be happening but it was anyway. It was dirty, very obviously dangerous and to-date the most fucking brilliant live event I’ve ever been to. Although ostensibly there was some sort of competition taking place and winners were announced at various points, the rules of the event were fluid. What really mattered was how much car-smashing was going on. The drivers and the teams that got the biggest cheers (and the most fans) were the ones that put themselves in harms way intentionally, not necessarily to gain any kind of tactical advantage but just because it got a big cheer. Drivers were routinely trapped in their vehicles, sometimes completely cocooned by their folded-in-half car. I saw drivers driving round and round the track with only two wheels still attached, the rear of the car completely gone, dragging various parts behind them like entrails. I saw cars somersaulting in the air, I saw cars- within metres of where I sat- pirouetting on their grills like fat ballerinas, I saw cars take off and embed themselves in tree-tops, and along with 2 or 3 thousand other people I cheered, I waved, I grimaced, I screamed and I laughed.
I’ve recently found myself looking back on the times I went to this banger racing event and re-imagining it as an art event. I realised if I was to re-stage it in an artistic context I would change absolutely nothing. I decided it was the best theatre I had ever seen.
We’ve made a few shows that play with spectatorship and we often borrow from other live events (live music, stunt shows, sports) when we make our work. We’re interested in when/how an audience becomes a crowd. What happens if an audience is asked to play the role of a crowd? How can we engender some of the behaviours that characterise a crowd in a theatre audience? Matt Trueman recently postulated a scenario in which theatre audiences behaved more like football fans. It’s something Brecht famously said too, that he’d like theatre to be more like football. I’m totally with Matt when he says theatre makers and theatre venues should work harder to engender fandom, and that audiences need something to believe in if they’re to value it enough to fight for its place in the world. Theatre buildings sometimes feel like barriers to – rather than facilitators of – an event. The recent (ridiculously twattish) theatre charter claimed theatre’s downfall was the growing deviant behaviour of audiences. From my point of view theatre is dying from completely opposite reasons. Audiences are way too polite. Politeness, protocol and snobbery are draining the liveness from the event, sucking the life out of the public arena.
I’m a big Newcastle United fan, and although I’d like to see theatre learn from football as a live form in some ways, theatre doesn’t need to be like football, because football does football. Just like the banger racing event, if I was to recreate a Newcastle united football game in a theatrical context, I would change nothing. Its theatre already and it doesn’t need re-framing. Being part of a football crowd is thrilling in many ways. I love to sing with other people, I love the way the sound vibrates around the stadium, I love the connection to where I’m from, who I am, my history, and the amazing way football combines this personal internal feeling of home with large scale mass spectatorship. But football crowds are also anonymous. Its rare for me to feel individually empowered as part of a large crowd and the collective behaviour of a crowd that size is often joyously funny, deviant and subversive but sometimes really fucking idiotic. A theatre audience feels a lot more like a group of empowered individuals, and to me that’s a more exciting space to be working in.
As well as banger racing, we also used to attend air shows when I was a kid. Air shows are really long, really slow moving, really quite boring days punctuated by moments of extreme noise terror. You cannot argue with what a fast jet flying low over your head does to your insides. It expels you, gasping and grinning out the other side. The red arrows are the most fucking joyful, thrilling, beautiful, awesome, poetically splendid thing you are ever likely to see. When I was a kid I desperately wanted a red arrows jump suit. I wanted a red arrows cap. I wanted to live in a red arrow. There was no better achievement in life I could imagine than to be a red arrows pilot. Last week we went to an air show and the red arrows were there. They did not disappoint. That’s their thing, really. They NEVER disappoint. Every detail of the display is immaculate, its a display of power, finesse, control, flamboyance, poetry, noise, everything. There’s a thing they do, you probably know it, where two of them fly towards each other and at the last minute they jink and turn on their side and just miss each other. IT LITERALLY NEVER FAILS TO ELICIT A GASP. Literally NEVER. I’ve seen the red arrows loads of times and I still gasp every time. I know exactly what they’re going to do, I even know that they use a bit of perspective trickery and they’re not really as close as they look BUT I STILL GASP LIKE A CHILD. Every time. This last time I noticed that there is a small change of direction from both planes just after they pass each other that is the key to its beauty. Its like a little kink, like a flamboyant little flick. Its not required, its not really perceptible either but what it does is exaggerate the speed of the manoeuvre, and sort of punctuates the moment. It gives your brain just that little bit more to do to try and follow and its that little adjustment that really makes it sing. Its a sign that the red arrows choreography team really know that what they’re doing is theatre. Its not just “fly really fucking close!”, its a lot lot more than that.
But again, I’m not saying this was some kind of zenith of spectatorship we can all aspire to. I looked around me during the display at how other people were behaving and reacting. I looked at all the kids (in red arrows jumpsuits and red arrows caps) and watched what kind of crowd they were being. And its true (if they were looking, and not crying because they’ve dropped their ice cream, or tripping over their brother, or doing something weird like children like to do) they did gasp and they did look with wide eyes in total awe. But the nature of spectatorship at an air show meant a lot of the time they were dropping their ice creams, or falling into a hedge, or looking in their bags for the suncream. Even when the red arrows were on. The finale. The best bit of the whole day without a doubt. They weren’t fully focused on the event. It wasn’t lifting them and carrying them into ecstatic rapture, it was just happening.
When we were making our latest show ‘Hoke’s Bluff‘ we attended some sports events in North America. We went to an Ice Hockey game in Vancouver, a Basketball game in San Antonio and an American football game in Oakland. American sports seem to have their own special approach to spectatorship. Despite the fact that American football games last 3 hours and most of the time absolutely nothing happens on the field apart from men wandering around using towels, there is no tedium allowed. Your time is filled with entertainment, competitions, statistics and F.U.N. The basketball game we watched was one of the most intense experiences I’ve ever had. It was actually sickly in its relentlessness. We ate, cheered, MADE SOME NOISE and high-fived our way through the 2 1/2 hours and we were bombarded with visuals from the giant screens, loud music and endless countdowns to prizes, points, STUFF. So much STUFF. In my memory of it I barely see any basketball being played at all. I see lights, and colour and STUFF everywhere. The ice hockey was the same. Flashing lights, countdowns, prizes, a blimp dropping tickets, a car with ski’s on firing t-shirts from a six barrel mounted machine gun….. I loved all three of the events we saw and I loved how easy it was to buy in to it. I was immediately an Oakland Raiders fan, I immediately wanted the shirt, and a cap and a badge and a poster to take home. I was immediately a San Antonio Spurs fan, immediately a Vancouver Giants fan. We bought the t-shirt, (it says #hockeywithheart) we bought the sliced pizza and the cheesy fries and the foam hands and the STUFF and we REALLY REALLY REALLY wanted to win a prize. The offer is totally inclusive. Everyone is invited, everyone is allowed. There is no danger of anyone thinking this isn’t for them. They might not like it, they might rather do something else but it asks you to join in with every ounce of its being. All the energy is directed at you, for your benefit, asking you to be part of it. I love that. With theatre, on the other hand, people still don’t fully believe its for them. Theatre doesn’t feel like a common language in the way that it could or should. When we were making Hoke’s Bluff we were always thinking about how to incorporate this common language, this openness. We wanted to ask the audience to buy into what we were doing in the same way. But crucially, we weren’t trying to replicate the form. The generous offer that American Sports makes, is significantly tempered by its entanglement in consumerism. The offer is there because the more we buy into it the more STUFF gets sold and the more money gets made. The sport doesn’t care about you as an individual, it cares about you as a consumer. It feels like a superficial engagement on some level. Even at its most hyped and at its loudest, most high-octane moments it feels at arms length somehow. Your presence is welcomed but not necessarily required. It doesn’t need you there, it just really wants you there.
Theatre and live performance has an incredible capacity to engage our heads and hearts at the same time. We can think and feel complex thoughts and feelings simultaneously and that allows us as makers to go beyond the spectacle of the air show, or the banger racing, or the Basketball game. We can learn from them and we can incorporate the noise terror, or the foam hands and the pirouetting cars and we can talk in a common language but we can also go further than that. We can question and interrogate and provoke. We can empower individuals to think and feel about their place in the world. With Hoke’s Bluff we wanted to make something that felt familiar, that felt open and full of heart and noise and love and T-shirt cannons (no pirouetting cars though- maybe next time) and could tell an underdog story we’ve all heard a million times before and tell it with genuine care and genuine love. But we also wanted to ask questions about those stories, open cracks in them and peer through and try to understand why they’re so persistent. Why do I get caught up in it every single time? We wanted to ask questions about the nature of spectatorship, and the passivity of the crowd. We wanted to exploit theatre’s unique ability to hold conflicting emotional and intellectual elements in the same space at the same time. With our work we’ve always been curious about creating those moments when you’re feeling something that contradicts what your thinking. Can we cheer and wave flags and feel genuinely excited about an idea we also happen to think is moronic? Can we hold a space for these contradictions that permeate our lived experience of the world outside the theatre so frequently?
The banger racing was the best live event I’ve ever been to not just because of its success as a balls-out spectacle but because of its ability to hold an alternative, dangerous, collective space in a world that otherwise mostly denies us these things. My family and I also happened to go and see some banger racing at Wimbledon stadium (Bros and Phillip Schofield were driving) and it was fun but it didn’t have the same heart. It was banal in its scale and in its set-up. I want to see theatre that creates spaces where we feel thrilled and we think about our place in the world. I’d like to see #hockeywithheart. I’d like to see children in jumpsuits and caps, I’d like to see banners and flags, I’d like to hear singing, and I want audiences who are fans