Most of us theatrey bozos conduct all manner of arcane incantations to try and choke the living daylights out of the formality of theatre - muttering spells of inclusion, engagement, immersion, or meta-mahogoney-caucophonic-interplay and then in a poof of sulphurous pyrotechnics an audience stands, applauds and pisses off leaving the formality as pristine and smug as an Audi wafting away in a factory showroom.
Here’s what I’m talking about (reduced for effect): One enters a dark room with marshmallowy, artificial light and sits with others to stare at a reconstruction of somewhere set up on the stage. Chances are there is some ambient music playing. The gooey lights go down, the audience is polite and quiet, the lights go up, a bunch of twaddle happens on the stage, which might be good or bad, the lights go down and the audience applauds regardless of their level of enjoyment while the actors who made some of the twaddle happen bow their little hearts out. Then everyone pisses off. It’s almost as repugnant as being back at grammer school, no? But in its essence, this is the formality of theatre.
The best productions are no match for this formality. Last spring I was given the privilege to join the cast of Vamos Theatre’s production The Best Thing. In many ways the title of the show was more a description than a poetic decoration. This show was powerful. As a clown performer (about which all I’ll say is that I make it my job to deliver theatre with the spirit of a party more than a serious recital – marking me among the aforementioned theatrey bozos) the immediate effect of this production on the audience came in the form of gallons of tears at the end of the show. Most of my career has seen tears of joy, not of searing emotional catharsis. I was moved profoundly. Essential to Vamos Theatre’s ethos is to produce real human connections (while wearing masks, of course) and so we, as a company, did all we could throughout the performance to justify this ethos and then speak directly with the public afterwards as well as maintain connection through the tin-can-telephone of social media. I would experience grown men and women collapsing into my arms giving way to tears, which I would soon share as they revealed to me their own experiences with the forced adoption depicted in the play. Some of these connections are ongoing even today.
Despite this, everyone eventually goes home. The formality of theatre stands as a barrier to our experience of The Best Thing because somehow it brands the show as just another theatre production and renders our experience a mere by-product. But what else can be done? This is the best medium for The Best Thing and, lo, such is the necessary residue of the business. But not always.
Currently, I am blessed to be part of a project with Vamos Theatre called Sharing Joy. Like The Best Thing, Sharing Joy is what the label reads on the tin. It is an adventure that soars my feral clown heart like a hawk. And the formality? Blown to smithereens! The tears of joy and sorrow are present and interchangeable from beginning to end and no one has to be polite and quiet in a dark room.
Sharing Joy is a spectacle for those living with dementia. In a way, this includes us all, as somehow we all have a connection to dementia - be it directly or through those around us. Yesterday, for example, we performed to a group of people ranging from those in their eighties who have the condition to those still in their teens who are undertaking job placement to care for those with the condition. Sharing Joy is a party, a hoo-haw, where no one is excluded, patronised, alienated or harangued. We, the performers, are the MCs for joy. Even the militant formality which tries to impose itself as we admit to the audience, with whom we’ve already shared fits of giggles, that the show is about to begin, becomes a joke that makes us laugh all the more jovially at the pretention of “getting started” – clearly we’ve already started; theatre be damned.
So, why am I blithering on about the formality of theatre? Well, it is through the scope of Sharing Joy that makes the formality appear to me a symptom of our pretentions by which we delineate an identity – as though we are our jobs, our experiences, our families, our friends, our tastes, our education or our expertise. It’s bollocks. With Sharing Joy, I’ve born witness to greater sincerity, stronger initial bonds, more exuberant playfulness and sharper personality from those who couldn’t remember five minutes ago than my initial meeting of anyone in the past 10 years. Before being involved with Sharing Joy, I regarded dementia (not that I thought about it often) as a disorder that clouded the mind before one’s omega shuffle. Certainly dementia has its severe connotations and I’m not trying to obscure this. I am, however, beginning to wonder if dementia might in part be a refining of the person one has become, free of the accumulated vanities that cloud one’s nature throughout a lifetime. This, I know, is too simple a perspective to be entirely true, however the elation I experience during Sharing Joy and its resonance throughout my day certainly gives some weight to a more merciful view of this condition, maybe even to life itself. As a theatrey bozo, I count this project as invaluable research towards my future battle with the formality. As a living being, I count this experience among my most treasured. Thanks Vamos.
Photo: Jeremy Freeman-Wood