Critical Paper: Truth in Play

Critical Paper: In search of Truth in Play and a more Engaged Audience.

The very notion of the ‘play’, is based on pretending, on creating and presenting a version or an image of the truth. Yet theatre and live events have often become places of political action. Ridout argues that ‘Perhaps it is the uncertainty about truth and untruth, which is foregrounded in the experience of theatre, that makes it an appealing place to come in search of ethical questions’ (2009 P.15-16). With greater truth, is an audience more likely to be more deeply moved and engaged and does greater truth mean a more active audience? This in many ways is not a new discussion and yet 'Sometimes it can seem as though Brecht's ideal; a critical, intellectually engaged, and questioning audience - is a long way from realisation.' (P49, Freshwater, 2009) So how is truth being used in theatre to educate, promote and inspire social change and what is the effect on the audience/performer relationship?

As a long dedicated theatre goer, designer and maker, it might seem strange to admit, to often struggling to engage with conventional style theatre, staged in a theatre buildings. Whenever attending a play, there is this uncomfortably moment of adjustment to the ‘acting thing’. The exaggeration of character, the projected voice, rehearsed movements and often obvious blocking. There is a feeling of hurt in the lie being offered by a real person/actor to a real person/audience. The relationship is a distant one and so we must sit back passively as an observer to enjoy the spectacle as entertainment. Now of course there is a genuine place for entertainment in theatre and immense joy can be found in the spectacle of an elaborate West End show for example. However this experience within a wider social context can be seen as quite limited, and one that does not harness the true potential for theatre to inspire a more active thinking audience. The live event is a social and physical experience, which forms a community and therefore can provide a unique connection with ideas, issues and people.

Artists have often played a traditional role in society ‘as truth-tellers and agents of change’ (Neal, 2015). They frequently operate outside of general social conformity with a confidence to stand out, to be different and to speak out on social injustice. Historically they have been important players in pushing boundaries, revolution and reform, including the German Bauhaus and Russian Avant Guard movements. Their unique ability to creatively present ideas, principles, opinions and facts in an engaging way through visual, auditory and kinaesthetic approaches might be seen as key to their success. Regardless, their actions create an audience and importantly therefore a dialogue. The British Council recognises the importance of the artist in society, stating ‘We believe a direct experience of the arts contributes vitally to the development of society, shared prosperity and mutuality, which strengthens cultural relations through inspiration and understanding.’ ‘Understanding’ seems a key word here, particularly when placed in context of bridging cultures. Art and artists play an important part in the community and can help to provoke change and demonstrate situations and behaviour in accessible forms. Theatre and performance has a key role to play in this, using a live discipline to engage, debate, shock, provoke and entertain, ‘theatre can make life matter’ (Daniels. 1999).

On attending my first music festival in 1998, a clear memory remains, seeing a live performance by the singer/songwriter Cat Power. The equipment failed, she forgot the words and in doing so started to talk honestly and directly to the audience. There was an instant connection and the audience felt a sense of endearment towards her, we were now sharing this experience with her and could connect more deeply with her music and lyrics for feeling we knew the real person better. This I see now was the start of my fascination with the intimacy of the live event, and the potential for real connection between audience and performer. Much of my work to date has sought to break down the conventional and sometimes distant audience/performer relationship. Including the silent, improvised and interactive ‘city happenings’ of The SHRUG Ladies and the immersive children’s theatre of HandMade Theatre. I have also steered my interests as an audience member, towards more experimental theatre, devised performance and live art events, enjoying the unexpected styles, more challenging topics, interesting locations and a more realistic performance style.

‘The Main Thing Is Honesty. If You Can Fake That, You’ve Got It Made’

This quote, often given to actors as advice, has had many recantations coined by prominent figures including Groucho Marx, Samuel Goldwyn, and George Burns. This demonstrates some of the lie found in theatre, and while the best actors will achieve believability, many fall short and most will remain quite distant with an audience while ‘playing’ a character. In contrast much of contemporary devised theatre moves away from this idea of acting, with actors preferring to call themselves performers and present themselves as themselves, or at least more performative versions of themselves. In the book Breaking the Rules: Wooster Group, David Savran describes this phenomenon in relation to the company.

‘In performance as it has been traditionally conceived, the performer must surrender his identity to that of the character he plays… In all its work the Wooster group breaks with this pattern by asking the performer not to sacrifice his subjectivity, but to retain it and simply stand in for someone else. The performer will make no attempt to impersonate, to portray a character with any fullness or psychological depth. He just goes through the motions.’ (1986, p.114)

This greater truth and honesty in the performance can be seen as particularly important for The Wooster Group because ‘From the beginning, it's work has been tough - difficult, vigorous and controversial. It has constantly addressed pressing social issues, including the victimization of women, racism and the multifarious processes of dehumanization. It has shocked and outraged a public inured to the unconventional and the daring.’ (Savran, 1986, p1) The political nature of their work means it is essential they build a strong relationship with an audience, if they are to genuinely engage them and explore social issues as real and current.

Some contemporary performers go further in this exploration of a truthful performance drawing directly on personal experiences as the inspiration for the creation of their work. In some cases a devising company undertakes a deliberate exploration, as in the case of The Gramophones ‘Playful Acts of Rebellion’ (2012), a show, inspired by the performers own experiences and experiments into social and political actions. Or the inspiration may come from an existing personal experience as in the case of ‘Good Friday – A clinical depression concept, album, show.’ By Dave Parkin. This was presented as a personal account of depression, attempted suicide and recovery. The narrative is a true story, told by the individual who experienced it and thus an audience meets a real truth, only slightly distorted by time and the set up of a performance. Even the songs, which form an entertaining and performative aspect to the show, were originally written as part of the recovery process. Although inevitably developed for the public spectacle of the show, they remained somewhat raw and clunky, played with error by someone not recognised as a professional musician but a person sharing his story. The audience response to this show was often profound and personal; people were moved to say things such as ‘thank you for sharing’, ‘I can relate to this’, ‘I no longer feel alone’. So despite the inevitable challenge of selling a show with ‘depression’ as the theme, this proved a meaningful experience for the limited numbers who risked their social time for a deeper cause. Yet the limited reach of this powerful show was also compounded by the lack of venues willing to programme a risk ‘because the marketing people believe that audiences will only part with their cash for safe, non-controversial, dazzling but all too often empty spectacle.' (Daniels 1999, xxvi)

Performance company Zoo Indigo goes further still in their blurring of reality on stage, often including live video feeds to real family members. This is shown in their production ‘Under The Covers’ which features a link to their own sleeping children and in ‘Blueprint’ featuring live links and interactions with the 4 female performers Mothers. The reality of this is clear and as an audience we see a genuine glimpse at the real performers lives and we believe the stories, encounters and relationships set before us. These shows remain highly entertaining and playful in style and manner yet they establish a fantastic audience/performer relationship, which makes us engage and share in the experience, interestingly with the added volatility of live technology adding yet another 'live' and current aspect.

However not all people with a story to tell have the training, ability and desire to present it live themselves and yet they of course have a voice which should be heard. Theatre has thus coined and developed the term ‘Verbatim’ to describe the use of real voices and stories presented on stage. Playwright Robin Soans, recognised for his verbatim plays, discussed in a group interview his work including key issues with truth. He argued that ‘Verbatim theatre looks at things more closely and at the human element’ comparing it to journalism as a better account of events, with the subjects approached in a more understanding manner. Yet he also debated ‘what is truth - impossible we all edit and add things’ and therefore his verbatim plays are ‘the truth about these people but not prosaically true’. This may feel somewhat confusing and perhaps undermine some of what we perceive as truth in verbatim but there was no denying the change in audience relationship when truth is concerned ‘If you say a play is verbatim then the audience comes with preconception, they expect research behind the story and expect you to reveal something,’ (Soans, 2014) This deep research is what we expect from new writing and devised theatre and social comment and engagement is a key way we justify its creation and funding.

Other conventional modes for talking directly to an audience which can be seen to bridge the gap is the ancient literary devise ‘story within a story’, which lends itself to a key storyteller/narrator who might drift between a given reality and a fantasy within the two stories. In theatre Shakespeare commonly uses this notion of a ‘play within a play’ seen in ‘A Midsummer Nights Dream’, and ‘Hamlet’ which might explore notions of reality, duality and audience relationship. In contemporary theatre writing this devise has been effectively used within ‘The Curious Incident of The Dog’ (National Theatre 2013). A short section of text spoken directly to the audience instantly establishes the convention of ‘a play within a play’ and clearly gives the audience a stronger sense of the main character Christopher as a possible real person. The character was already very well researched and well presented but this extra feature, really pushed reality forward, particularly in his reappearance at the end, supposedly as a real person rather than an actor. This feature made us question our own understanding of what was real or acted and made the narrative feel more relevant and true. The play explored issues including autism, disability, truth and relationships. Therefore the it has a key opportunity to not only provide entertainment but also encourage greater social understanding of these issues, in particular a difficult and often misunderstood condition. The building of a better relationship with Christopher the character therefore lends itself to us as an audience giving a better understanding to the real life ‘Christophers’ we might encounter in our own daily lives.

Similar to the desire for reality in performance and narrative I would also advocate for a reality in design. By this however I do not mean a reality in the sense of meticulously recreated sets to form realistic ‘looking’ locations but instead to create a reality, relevant to the exact person and place of the live event. Therefore a performer does not needs to hide the collection and placing of a stand alone prop required to support some action and we do not need to visually demonstrate that we are somewhere we are not. We recognise that this is theatre and that our imagination in theatre is key. Design is primarily about signposting the imagination for audience and performers and enhancing the visual aesthetic. It is the imagination and the metaphors, which generate an active thinking audience and importantly what can make live theatre seem special.

‘In theatre the audience are in a respective mood anyway, so open to using their imagination. It's more powerful to leave stuff out, our imagination can be worse. Sometimes when it is the actual thing you limit it, because it’s the end of your imagination. So get imaginative juices flowing, don't provide everything.’ (Soans, 2014)

In 'The Curious Incident of The Dog' we again see an excellent example where a very clever, constantly transforming, yet seemingly minimal set clearly indicates a wide range of locations. The most successful and possible simplest transformation were the white boxes, used throughout as stools for the ever present actors. These were utilised to indicate a street filled with houses, containing different personalities and while most boxes simply became basic furniture others were a bit more special. With the simple addition of a glowing coloured light from within and a sound effect, one box became a believable red cooking microwave, one a bubbling blue fish-tank and one a glowing green TV set. The actors were clearly miming, making no pretence at these imaginary settings and objects, so we were all part of this playfulness and happy to let our imaginations fill in the gaps.

In film we become ever closer to a totally believable reality, even with a narrative of total fantasy, achieved through the effective use of evermore-elaborate effects, sets and settings. This is what film can do really well, it has the time, resources and people necessary and 'No matter how much theatre expands and exploits its mechanical resources, it will remain technologically inferior to film and television. (Grotowski 2000 P.24) Therefore I support Grotowski’s notion of ‘towards a poor theatre’, which celebrates the simplicity and ingenuity required. 'The acceptance of poverty in theatre, stripped of all that is not essential to it, revealed to us not only the backbone of the medium, but also the deep riches which lie in the very nature of the art-form.' (Grotowski 2000 p.25)

This notion of a ‘poor theatre’ was also the defining aspect of The Bread and Puppet Theatre founded in 1963 by Peter Schumann in New York, advocating ‘the importance of Cheap Art’ because art should be for everyone and used as a way to voice for social change. The company is still active today and features this statement on their website:

“We believe in puppet theatre as a wholesome and powerful language that can touch men and women and children alike, and we hope that our plays are true and are saying what has to be said, and that they add to your enjoyment and enlightenment.” –Peter Schumann

Again we see a connection between truth and issue based statements in theatre. Interestingly Bread and Puppet, although responsible for the production of many plays, have also presented much of their work in the form of political action through protest. Their large-scale puppets could draw attention in a crowd and form a more accessible and visual links to an issue. They were active in their support for social change on both a local level and more global, including The Vietnam War. In this way their audience was not just active on a thought-based level through issue but also active in a physical way through the practical involvement in these events.

Activist style performances importantly take place on the streets, within and part of the community.

‘the non-theatre site created a bridge between real and imaginary actions… finding exigencies aside, non-theatre sites are attractive to activists because of the diverse population they incorporate. I addition, performances in such sites are less easily pigeonholed as “just theatre” – that is, considered irrelevant because they take place in spaces designated for “art” and thus lack political clout. (p.111 Cohen-Cruz J 1994)

Theatre that aims to involve a community or give voice to one is usually labeled ‘Community Theatre’ its actions ‘can mean many things, including reaching out and entering into dialogue with an audience… and to instigate social change by combining the pleasures of performance with aesthetic forms that link the performance situation and the wider social world.’ (Kuppers 2007 Pg 7) However the word ‘community’ can have both positive and negative connotations. This work is too often depicted as amateur because it includes some level of participation, with people who have not received formal arts training and produced without commercial level funding. Or community in the sense of collaboration, therefore lacking clear direction and diluted by compromise. Highbrow elitists may consider this work less well made, less well presented and thus given less weight, power and exposure. Here is a key issue of politically charged theatre, representing the truthful voice. Even if, through the medium of live theatre, this voice is heard, will it be valued, understood and seen as important? The confusion between entertainment, truth and politics can prove a real hindrance in this scenario.

As part of this research and the continuing development of my own creative work, I undertook a case study exploring the process of researching and producing issue-based theatre. I documented the process from initial conception of an idea, through practical research and personal experience, then finally making and presenting art works including a performance and exhibition. This project explored the issue of stray dogs in Sicily, working in close collaboration with artist Elsa Bua formally of the art activism group The Mischief Makers. This endeavour became known as The Pupi Project and included interviews, practical research of the issue, the creation of puppets and artefacts, a scratch theatre show and a series of site-specific vignettes featuring ‘warning signs’ inspired by stories of dog abuse. This experience highlighted to me that ‘There is power in the creative, whether it’s dressing up in costume or performance art. By acting in uncommon ways, it makes passersby stop, take notice, and question what you’re doing. Often, it sparks a conversation, And dialogue is where change really begins’ (Van der Werf, 2011, p. 165). Conversation was in fact the most inspiring part of the project. I found that by being an outsider and yet present in a community and culture, making a stand on a local issue people wanted to talk, they wanted to share and they wanted to support. I was able to build a connection ‘...the practise of theatre both reflects and contributes to the development of social, economic and political relations between the people who make and watch performance’ (Ridout. 2009 p. 7). In many ways I could have simply undertaken the research and made a documentary about my journey, waiting till I returned to create an artistic response and yet it proved important to make the work in the real place, with the real people. ‘We learn something about a subject but also ourselves in the creation of theatre.’ (Soans 2014) and ultimately ‘Reclaiming culture is an exciting and rewarding activity. It gives you a Robin Hood-like feeling of stealing back what the commercial world has tamed, harnessed and homogenised in physical as well as metaphorical ways.’ (Neal, 2015 p.350)

This essay begins to highlight some of the aspects of live theatre and performance, which lends itself well to being a voice for social change. Perhaps most importantly this comes from the building of a relationship between performer and audience, bridging a divide with a greater level of truth within a live event. ‘The combination of the more engaged actor and spectator has led to the creation of plays with content the actor and spectator directly relate.’ (p.114 Cohen-Cruz J 1994) In this way theatre has the opportunity to encourage an active audience, one, which thinks, participates and discusses. This style of audience has the potential to move towards a greater understanding and the possibility to strive for change and so ‘let us accept that the division between participant and spectator is not a necessary one, that the vigilant spectator is always an assistant at the spectacle.’ (P.213 Kennedy 2009) This advocates theatre where everyone feels involved and 'participation is often figured as a potent method of empowerment.' (Freshwater. 2000 P.56)

There is clearly a uniqueness in the live event which lends itself well to the presentation of truth and exploration of issue based topics. There is also key opportunities for engaging an audience through the playfulness of the imagination, morphing truth and reality, abstractions and realism. Future exploration of this research might consider in more depth the role of design and how this effects, supports and influences truthful narratives and social activism. There should be deeper exploration of existing theatre styles exploring these themes, including community theatre, theatre of the oppressed and gorilla theatre. As a focus for the extension of this research, I will look at how more expressive and abstract forms of theatre including puppetry and dance, explore issues of truth.


British Council:

COHEN-CRUZ, J (1994) Mainstream or Margin – US activist performance and Theatre of the Oppressed in Playing Boal Theatre, Therapy, Activism. London: Routledge

DANIELS. S (1999) ‘Forward’ in GOODMAN, L and De Gay, J (Ed’s) (2000) The Routledge Reader in Politics and Performance. London: Routledge

FRESHWATER, H (2009) Theatre & Audience. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

GROTOWSKI, J (2000) Towards a poor Theatre. In GOODMAN, L & DE GAY, J (eds) (2000) The Routledge Reader in Politics and Performance. London: Routledge

KENNEDY, D. (2009) The Spectator and The Spectacle: The Audience in Modernity and Post-Modernity. Cambridge University Press

KUPPERS, P (2007) Community Performance: An Introduction. London: Routledge

RIDOUT. N (2009) Theatre & Ethics. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

SAVRAN, D (1986) Breaking The Rules The Wooster Group. New York : Theatre Communicate Group.

SCHUMANN, P. Bread and Puppet Theatre Home:

SOANS, R: Group Discussion: Verbatim Theatre, UAL ,Wimbledon: 2014

VAN DER WERF (2011) Evolving Activism at the G8 in HUNTER, E. (2011) The Next Eco Warriors. San Francisco: Conari Press


AUSLANDER, P (1999) Liveness: Performance in a Mediatized Culture. London: Routledge

BERGER, J. (1972) Ways of Seeing. Great Britain: British Broadcasting Corporation and Penguin Books Ltd

BRECHT, S (1988) The Bread and Puppet Theatre Vol 1. London: Methuen Drama

COHEN-CRUZ, J & SCHUTZMAN, M (Eds) (1994) Playing Boal Theatre, Therapy, Activism. London: Routledge

FRESHWATER, H (2009) Theatre & Audience. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

GOODMAN, L & DE GAY, J (eds) (2000) The Routledge Reader in Politics and Performance. London: Routledge

GOLDBERG, RL (1988) Performance Art: From Futurism to the present. Singapore: World of Art series.

HUNTER, E. (2011) The Next Eco Warriors. San Francisco: Conari Press

JOHNSON, D. (2012) Theatre & the Visual, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

KELLEHER, J (2009) Theatre & Politics, Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

KENNEDY, D. (2009) The Spectator and The Spectacle: The Audience in Modernity and Post-Modernity. Cambridge University Press

KERSHAW, B (1999) The Radical in Performance, between Brecht and Baudrillard. London: Routledge

KUPPERS, P (2007) Community Performance: An Introduction. London: Routledge

NEAL, L (2015) Playing for Time: making art as if the world mattered. London: Oberon Books

PEARSON, M (2010) Site-Specific Performance. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

RIDOUT. N (2009) Theatre & Ethics. Hampshire: Palgrave Macmillan

SANDERSON. C.C (2003) Gorilla Theatre: a practical guide to performing the new outdoor theatre anytime, anywhere. London: Routledge

SAVRAN, D (1986) Breaking The Rules The Wooster Group. New York : Theatre Communicate Group.

VERGINE, L. (2000) Body Art and Performance: The Body as Language. Milan: Skira

Theatre & Art Exhibitions:

Gramophones Theatre Company (2014) Playful Acts of Rebellion. The Corner, Nottingham

Dave Parkin (2012) Good Friday: A Clinical depressions, concept, album, show. Curve Theatre, Leicester

Lloyd Newson/DV8 (2014) John. The National Theatre, London.

Zoo Indigo (2010) Under The Covers: 1st Rules. SEAS Festival, Skegness.

Blind Summit (2015) Citizen Puppet, New Diorama Theatre, London

The National Theatre (2013) The Curious Incident of The Dog, Gielgud Theatre.

Rites of Nature (2015) Nottingham Contemporary

Disobedient Objects (2015) V&A Museum


Bread and Puppet Theatre:

British Council:

Lush: Fighting Animal Testing: Live Demonstration at Regents Street

Article: Is the live theatre experience dying?


ASHCROFT, R: The Gramaphones Theatre Company: Interview on making devised work including ‘Playful Acts of Rebellion’ Broadway Cinema, Nottingham: 2015

BUA, E. Art Activism & The Mischief Makers. Sicily: 2015

SOANS, R: Group Discussion: Verbatim Theatre, UAL ,Wimbledon: 2014

Tags: Research Critical Paper Unit 2