Friday, 12 February 2010

Second Interview with Michael Billington.

Despite arriving twenty minutes late, and keeping me waiting in the cold, Michael Billington was once again a true gentleman, who eloquently answered all questions without even slight hesitation. He is a walking theatrical encyclopedia, and even though some of the questions regarded drama, rather than the performance in a theatre, his answers were still insightful and will hopefully serve as good publicity for the event.
There are a few comments specifically about our project, and i believe the advice he offers towards the end of the interview is particularly worthy of note. We can install a sense of pride among the people of Ham.

Why is Community so Important?

Well, for obvious democratic reasons. It encourages involvement, which can only ever be a good thing. There has been a recent upsurge in community work, In fact. I can’t for the life of me think of her name, but she used to work at the National Theatre and then moved to Dorset, Dorchester to be correct and she missed theatre. She began creating community theatre, including a play called Angelica. The events were based on local history. I know that successful writers like David Edgar wrote for it. It was a successful promenade production that ended at the National Theatre. It was directed by Peter Hall and had Judi Dench in I believe. Howard Barker did one too, I think it’s important because its good for both the community and the writer.

What do you think the writer’s aim would be? What would he want his audience to experience through his play?

The virtue of these plays is that they are forced to examine the history of their community. There is always a story to be told, it can reinstate a sense of pride among the people who live there.

What, if anything, do you believe participatory theatre can do to highlight social inequalities and inspire social change?

The first thing it can do to inspire social change is to deal with what is happening around us. I think the examples over the last period would be things like documentary drama. We have plays that have been based on specific injustices, inequities. You don’t cause a shift in legislation, but what you do cause is a shift in opinion. There is the famous of example of a play called the Colour of Justice, shown at the Tricycle. It’s about the Metropolitan Police and their failure to pursue the case of the black boy who was killed at an Eton bus stop. The police singularly failed to make an enquiry, documents went missing. There was an inquiry into this after a play was staged, and as a result of this enquiry the spotlight was thrown on the metropolitan police. More to the point, the police themselves now use the television film of the Colour of Justice as a sort of warning to new recruits. By putting on a play, you actually cause people to examine their own profession and improve their training. That’s a very specific example. I mean, more generally I think what theatre does is rearrange consciousness. You are not aware when you are watching a play, but, long after you may find that your attitudes to race, gender, whatever, have changed. Last night for example I was watching Peter Brook’s 11 & 12. Its all about a west African village in the 1930s and you may think its not relevant, but what comes across in the play is the importance of tolerating other people’s views and beliefs. There is something absurd about people going to war over ludicrous arguments. It’s relevant obviously to today, to centuries of history. What interests me is it deals with public issues, but I think it makes you as an individual more aware of your own intolerance and your own dogmatism. It causes you to re-examine yourself. That’s what theatre does.

You mentioned the Tricycle Theatre. Do you think that this theatre is the centre of a community? Is it a successful example?

Well, yes and no. You’re absolutely right, because of where it’s situated, Kilburn, it has a sort of built in constituency doesn’t it. It has a strong Irish population and a strong black Asian population, as far as I know, I think they play to those strengths. Nicholas Kent has done a brilliant job, encouraging British Black Writers. He is doing an Irish play now; it is the centre of a community. It is not exclusively community; people can come from West London to see it. I think you have a point, a lot of good theatre in London, particularly as you get further out has more of a communal purpose. Stratford East is the famous example. There is an extraordinary vibrant young black audience. I go a lot to the Orange Tree in Richmond, which because of where it is situated has a very elderly, sedate cast audience. They love that theatre, and the plays address that constituency, that audience. I think it’s very difficult; a West End theatre has no constituency. It just has to draw from wherever. I like theatre to have identity and audience. Regional playhouses become community art centres. Local amateurs often have a take on the theatre. They act as a community focus at a time when city centres are very lifeless. They only two things they have are clubs and theatres, it’s out of the latter and into the former I find.

In Some reviews, you have come across as quite bemused at participatory theatre, like Punchdrunk’s Masque of the Red Death, but I was wondering if you can see a specific role for such theatre?

I must give this theatre credit because it is hugely popular. Masque sold out and could have run forever. Their show in Manchester this year, which I didn’t like, also sold out. It would be arrogant of me to say there is no role for it because they have found an audience which gets involved in a kind of physical level. It may just be a generational thing, I believe in a theatre where you participate emotionally rather than physically. I don’t want to go to a theatre where I have to walk around all evening, or where I am chased down corridors with men wielding chainsaws. I find that less engaging. I think, a play by Chekov is just as participatory as a promenade performance. I mustn’t be categorical because some promenade performances, I like. Several of the shows in Dorchester used that technique. It has its validity; it certainly has its audience.

As you were saying about the generation gap, maybe it is participatory theatre which can encourage the next generation into the theatre. Maybe they can realise its potential?

I think younger people enjoy the physicality, they like to be actively involved. I do think they quite like the social aspect of it, the staying around afterwards. There is a bar within the performance, you meet people, you pick people up I guess, I don’t know. You become more part of the evening out. I was brought up in a time where you paid for a seat and I cannot quite shake that off. I think participatory theatre can be quite good. Masque was rather extraordinary and imaginative but then I saw the one in Manchester and it felt like, well, it was rather exploitative and it was merely trying to terrify its audience. Like anything else, there are positives.

The amateur dramatics scene you mentioned, amateur is associated with poor, it doesn’t seem to get any kind of look in a far as important theatre is concerned, do you see a place for it, even though it is amateur by definition?

I don’t see much of it but it’s a vital part of British life, actually. We do more of it than any other country. Every town always has its amateur drama society. In my school days, it’s what made me interested in theatre. At its highest level it is completely astonishing. Many actors are amateur but no doubt better than professionals. They just choose not to pursue the profession. I have the highest respect for it. It can range from very established companies, like the Tower Theatre and a company in Ealing. They are exemplary, that’s the high end, right down to a ten minute performance in the village hall. It includes even university groups. I like amateur theatre when it is adventurous and I think what it should do is find plays which aren’t often explored, and to attack new styles. Amateur dramatics can have large casts, which bigger theatres can’t. It needs to be very explorative, and then push professional theatre forward. The audiences are reliable and they have the facilities. It is vital to this country; a lot of good people have come out of it.

Finally, do you think it’s possible, with what we are trying to do, to use drama to unite a community, to make a lasting effect upon it?

Yes, I think you can because of the very nature of the event means that, in a sense the bulk of people will be participating. There will be very few people spectating, therefore, everyone has a commitment to the event. My only advice, for what its worth would be, someway, tap into the local history. Obviously Ham House has a rich past, I think you should use what you can from the house, because I think you can just have a jolly knees up or you can use the local past and just find stories and anecdotes, historical events that have happened in and around Ham House and assign stories to specific groups. This would intensify the sense of local pride.

Thanks guys, let me know what you think, sum this interview up for me and then I can start to think about how to turn this into an article, which angel to approach it from, how to gain the most publicity. See you monday.

1 comment:

  1. I think what Billington says here is so poignant and crucial to our event. To tap into the local history of Ham we can create a sense of pride for the villagers, which I know from speaking to Lisa Pegg (landlady of The Royal Oak) Ham does not have at the moment. Lisa would be a great person to speak to Ben to help with your article. I was shocked when Goldsmith said that Ham had a good sense of community. Most people in Ham have also never been to Ham House. It is not a place that has brought people together, but I believe that through this event we can achieve this. I'm not just talking about the day itself but the 4 months that we now have leading up to it. In an ideal community project we could have people from the community like the bikers Goldsmith talks about, helping us organise the project. Maybe youth who do not have jobs helping to organise the project.

    Anyway, enough said...

    Well done Ben xxxx