So, we’re going with ‘Flare – International Festival of New Theatre’. Well it can’t be too long, and people need to know that it’s a festival (whatever assumptions that word triggers), and that it has some sort of scale, of geographical significance combined with an assumption of greater selectivity, or just that it will include work by foreigners, people with the determination to cross water, to show their work to you, the potential audience. Of course I could try to unpack the word ‘international’ a great deal further, but it’s the 'new' that feels like the biggest gambit.
As mentioned before, we stand alongside a bigger player with a commitment to ‘original, new work and special events’ – and as such we hope that our ‘new’ invokes their ‘new’, becoming defined as it is by what they have shown before, their acclaimed previous programming, and coloured, as it is, by their daring claim to originality. But we have to stand on our own feet as well. We are saying that one of the key factors of what we will be presenting is its novelty - that you won’t have seen this work before.
But it has to be more meaningful than that – it’s arguably the key word in the phrase – you wouldn’t expect us to include another ‘new’ production of the Mikado, or even a brand ‘new’ musical written by some budding Tim Rice. And it would be nice if we could take that logic a stage further – of course any live performance is new, so there has to be something ‘about’ the work that will highlight its novelty. If the Mikado example is acceptable, are we inferring that this isn’t about new versions of performances that have happened before? Is our strapline therefore suggesting that the festival will exclude any performance based on an existing theatrical text, where the text is treated as an outlined performance, and not just words (and notes) on a page served up to a wholly separate artistic process?
And if budding Tim Rices are not welcome (in the nicest possible way) is our header suggesting that it’s not about new works build around firm and long established structures or conventions? Does ‘new’ really convey that we want to exclude not just existing plays, but any new plays by any playwrights?
In some ways the question of text actually simplifies things. Take it away and ‘new’ falls short again of comfortably communicating the body of practice we are likely to end up presenting. After all, much of it will have antecedents of some kind or other, and its tropes and structures, whilst not rooted in long established theatrical tradition, will not be entirely unknown or unpredictable either. Most of the participants presenting will also be relatively early in their artistic development (reference to ‘new theatre makers’ will follow in the expanded festival blurb) right in the middle of that phase often dominated by the influence of other bigger players in the field. If the eagle-eyed critic can claim a relationship to Forced Entertainment, or Punchdrunk, or the Wooster Group, or Pina Bausch, has our main criterion been exposed as a sham?
Perhaps the two words are better taken together. ‘New Theatre’ smacks of an established category of performance practice (yet to be properly defined…) whilst at the same time seemingly playing high status to whatever ‘Old Theatre’ might be. It’s not going to win us friends amongst those whose theatre practice is not represented in the festival, but perhaps it does suggest that Theatre should be leaving the most dominant previous forms behind, looking to the future for its definition rather than its past.
And if nothing else, this inflection feels most secure. This will be a gathering of ‘new theatre makers’, people just starting to layout their artistic agenda, with their future as theatre artists ahead of them. To offer an industrial analogy these won’t be apprentices refining their skills on the factory floor, but new entrepreneurs setting out their own stall and seeing if their ideas sell. And of course there’s not an industry involved here, literally. Even if their ideas do resonate with their audiences and peers, they won’t make it big, they won’t be able to retire on the profits. These people, attempting to answer the question that ‘new theatre’ asks, are committing to a process without an ending, to a practice that won’t pay back, beyond the artistic satisfaction of knowing their ideas, manifest however they are, have a positive impact on the people who experience them.
What the festival means by ‘theatre’ I’ll leave for another time…