The Result

Posted: June 23, 2011 in Administrative

The dissertation, or write-up of the show, received a 17 ( a first class mark) from the University of St Andrews department of Sustainable Development. The comments said:

This is an extremely innovative and original project with some outstanding conceptual and theoretical discussions. Both markers were highly impressed by the huge amount of energy, creativity and work that has clearly gone into it. They were also hugely impressed by the originality of the project, the maturity of your thoughts; the level of critical engagement with the literature, the depth of knowledge of participatory methods, and the nature of your insights. Both thought this has the potential of making outstanding contributions to the field of SD, education and participatory methods. However, its weakness was the poor articulation between the practical and the conceptual components of the project. More information on methods, a better design of data gathering with more clear criteria for assessing the process would have strengthened your argument and made of this a publishable scholarly contribution. However, it has been a pleasure to read and a source of inspiration!

UNDERROADS: Some thoughts about theatre, interactivity, and sustainability


“Underroads”, from Tabula Rasa theatre, was performed at the Barron Theatre, St Andrews, February 21st-26th. It was part of my friend Brian’s undergraduate dissertation on theatre and sustainable development: the show and its process constituted his field research. As such, as far as I’m concerned, it’s already doing some very important work in combining theory and practise: as a militant investigation, it was not content to merely theorise about what was possible but was actively involved in making it possible. These thoughts are less about how successful it was as theatre (though there are a couple of thoughts about that at the end), and more concerned with how successful it was at investigating sustainability.


The show was driven by a narrative of archetypes: characters participated in the plots and ideas of Greek myths, set in a semi-metaphorical post-apocalyptic universe. Characters were both people and symbols, and the show in that sense was highly intellectual: one of the pleasures was in thinking about the relationships between these symbols, and what arguments were being made about the human condition. Ideas explored included class, agency, activity-vs-inactivity, nature-vs-civilisation, and the behaviour of humans in extreme socio-environmental conditions.

But the show was also visceral: the exploration was driven not only by the intellectual manipulation of symbols, but also by highly experiential events. We felt love, fear, horror, wonder, humour. The narrative was fractured throughout: a coherent story was not necessarily presented; we felt or experienced the narrative arc, but were regularly reminded of its metaphorical and absurd aspects.

As such, in provoking ideas and feelings about some of the core issues of sustainability, working at a compelling narrative level, the show certainly succeeded.


Early in the devising process, I ran a workshop on interactive theatre with the team. At this stage, the team were exploring closely ideas of interactivity, and were planning to introduce several interactive elements, if not run an entirely and deeply interactive show. However, about halfway through the process the team turned away from this approached and decided to produce narrative and presentational theatre.

That work on interactivity was still, however, apparent in the form of the show. The audience’s presence was regularly acknowledged, and occasionally they were physically touched and moved, or engaged in limited conversation. The audience were also twice offered a choice about whether or not to leave the theatre with a character. However, even at these moments of apparent choice, I would say that the audience were not ever given real agency: their presence did not influence what happened in the show at all, and even when they chose, they were not given any time to make that choice, instead being hurried through it.

There is a commonly-referenced genealogy or dialectic of political theatre, which was formulated/popularised by Augusto Boal. Crudely, it goes something like this:

– Aristotelean Theatre: The audience identifies with characters on stage on learns important lessons by experiencing various processes.
– Naturalist Theatre: The audience is presented with an image of the world as it actually is, and is so educated about political issues.
– Brechtian Theatre: The audience is presented with a dialectical narrative arc that makes political arguments, but is constantly reminded of the theatrical nature of the process, and so remains critically (rather than emotionally) engaged throughout
– Theatre of the Oppressed: The audience takes part in both acting out the narrative and deciding what should happen in the performance, and so experientially learn about political moments and processes

Within this frame of reference, Underroads sat firmly and consciously within the Brechtian framework: the audience was being encouraged throughout to reflect on what was happening, was regularly surprised into critical engagement, and was denied the pleasure of being immersed in the performance. It was at its most successful when it fully embraced this process, and at its least successful when it tried to reach beyond it. My own mission for theatre is for it to be participatory: Underroads offered me the twin frustrations of both not being participatory and offering hints of participation before taking them away.


I obviously have a vested interested in maintaining the above frame of reference and critiquing Underroads within it, because I see my own work as developing a further stage of interactive theatre beyond Boal’s. My dogmatic position, coming from an anarchist tradition of thought, is that theatre can only empower audiences to take action if audiences are empowered to be part of theatre: that is, if the theatre is interactive. For me, theatre which encourages reflection and does not at the same time provoke action is a bourgeois indulgence, and risks actually disempowering audiences. This point is of course also Marx’s comment on philosophy: “Philosophers have hitherto only interpreted the world: the point is to change it.” (I find the idea of “Underroads” exciting because it is a praxis: as a dissertation project, it combines theory and action.) At the points where Underroads seemed to be encouraging audience agency, I became frustrated, because I could see the work shying away from this process and not fulfilling that potential.

Again, my radical politics cannot help but inform my interpretation of the work. For me, what good there is in the idea of “sustainability” is in the idea of mass radical engagement with ecological, economic and social issues and processes. For me, any top-down process of imposing sustainability is both doomed to failure and politically abhorrent. And my pattern-seeking mind translates that argument onto art as much as it does onto activism (or education, or …). Any art which either argues a position or simply provokes thought is insufficient for sustainability: art can only contribute meaningfully to sustainability if it is horizontal and participatory, if it is about a process of audiences genuinely — physically and experientially, in reality instead of only in representation — engaging with ecology, economics and society.


Faced with the challenge of sustainability, theatre has two easy reactions: to decide that it doesn’t have anything to contribute and to leave it to the experts, or to engage with it with a certain intellectual and artistic aloofness. As far as I’m concerned, I think theatre is perfectly positioned as a form deeply concerned with event and place, and with a strong participatory tradition, to not just contribute to debate but also to contribute to the needed revolution. Everything I do is working towards understanding how theatre and performance could genuinely manage that. There was a sense for me in Underroads of the team seeing the huge scale of that challenge and of backing away from it in favour of the ease of narrative commentary. The result was a better theatrical success than might have been achieved if they tried to scale the mountain and failed, but it was not particularly successful at contributing to sustainability. It was successful at talking about some of the elements of sustainability in a narratively exciting way, but it was not successful at doing anything about it.


The most theatrically exciting moments of Underroads, for me, were the points when the audience were denied the full experience: when people were encouraged to leave early, when a handful of audience and cast were taken backstage and all we could hear was muffled argument, when a character had a whispered conversation with only one audience member. At these points Underroads was offering more than the chance to watch an unfolding story: these points make clear that more is happening in the world of Underroads than what we see on stage, and that the meaning of Underroads is not limited to the small square of stage. The bewildering opening, too, as we were denied the usual entrance to the theatre and overwhelmed by a cacophony of characters, was satisfyingly unsettling and disrupted the assumed meanings of the theatrical space. When these things happened, we were not just in a theatre and were forced to see things anew.


I like working with untrained actors, because they have usually not formed bad habits. I tend to think that wrong acting is a bigger problem than bad acting. Bad acting is usually due to a lack of basic skills: control of body and voice, focus, energy, accuracy, range, &c. Wrong acting is when the actor is trying to do the wrong thing. There are many different types of acting: naturalistic, caricatured, presentational, symbolic, &c. &c. (Reading theatrical history is endlessly furstrating for directors, because it’s so hard to get a grip on exactly how these ancient actors were acting.) Trained actors will tend to have better skills, but only be comfortable in one or two forms, and will tend to misapply these forms. Untrained actors will have weaker skills, but will tend to be able to be flexible in form, and be easily encouraged into the appropriate form for the piece.

Having seen the actors at two stages, I could tell that much work had been done on their skills, to great effect. Their level of physical control was particularly impressive; the weakest skill area was the ability to manage range of emotions (I think very much analogous to expanding a singer’s range and control of same). But less work had been done on making sure that the way they were acting was always coherent and appropriate: the styles on stage tended to be rather jumbled. This can work when it has artistic intent (as with the disjointed narrative of the piece), but is more often simply perceived by the audience as “bad acting”.


The show closed with audience discussion, but not in the usual way. There was no clear ending to the piece: instead the audience was led by characters into the area where the discussion took place — in this case a bar. There was no point at which we were told “this is the end of the show; now we talk about it.” I very much liked this — again because it questioned where the theatre space was, and created a clear continuity between theatre and reality. However, because no real participation had taken place up to this point, the audience was not sure of what was required from them at this stage: they had no rules or conventioned of participation to cling to. They were left stranded in the bar, waiting passively for something to happen, and offten only began to talk when told to by a cast member. This demonstrates rather neatly what I believe about empowerment: it is not enough to say “We’ve made you think, now you get to act”; instead, you have to intertwine thought and action throughout the entire process.

The format of the discussion itself was, however, highly successful: rather than sit in a big and frightening circle, participants formed their own groups into which cast and crew members intruded. Conversation was allowed to develop naturally. This did mean that the whole audience didn’t get a chance to develop a shared understanding of the piece, but did mean that a variety of discussion was encouraged. Theatre is really about managing a space and people’s behaviour within it: this was a successful moment of theatre!


Was “Underroads” good?

I judge Underroads by standards which are high and unfair. I want so much of theatre. Professional theatre fails me in this time and time again. It is appalling to me how bad much of professional theatre is: it not only suffers from political cowardice and unoriginality, but is also regualrly wrongly-acted, badly-directed, badly-written and badly-designed. I think that student theatre is regularly more impressive than professional theatre, once you ignore the gloss of high budgets and decent training (and sometimes even with the gloss intact). Underroads wasn’t just striking and highly original, it also had far more theatrical flair than the majority of professional productions I see. Honestly. It is irrelevant to say that it failed in my aims for theatre, and unfair to decide for myself that it did not succeed in all its own aims (that is for its makers to decide, based on our responses), when it succeeded at so much of what theatre has been, is, and will probably always be: a good story, told well and with style.


Watch out for exposition in the script i.e. don’t tell when you can show (though you proba already know that one) and Narcissus could really do with being turned down from an 11 to a 5 for most of the time. Also, perhaps a little more clarity when you’re communicating to the audience that they have a choice/there are multiple endings to the show.
That’s all I’ve got on changes.

Now for what I liked. As per usual you have some stunning images littered throughout. You are rather good at that. Seeing as most young directors (hell, directors in general in my experience) tend to forget the importance of what the audience is seeing on the stage, I always find your shows particularly refreshing.

Particularly liked:
– the couple (Narcissus + Echo) holding a mirror between them. At first I saw it as a symbol of how we don’t really see eachother, we’ve been too busy regarding ourselves- or that perhaps that’s just how people work.
– The mopping guy moping up water only to pour the water back onto the floor. I saw it as a satirical note on our current enviromental efforts.
– The anthropologist. Even his costume denoted someone who wasn’t particularly touched by what was going on. I saw it as academia tendancy, rightly or wrongly, to stay objective, not get emotionally involved in the subject. Ben, once again, was marvelous to watch. He knows how uncannily alike he is to Mr Cumberbatch doesn’t he?
– Twins were good. Liked the casting for two girls of similar height and size yet starkly different ethnic backgrounds, though how much of that was intentional I don’t know. It made them look stranger and more funny. I wish I had seen the ‘cannibalism’ ending.
– Liked that the audience got to choose ‘their ending’ in a sense. Gave a sense of choice. I think that your mix of interaction just at the end gave a sense of having to move from observers to actors, something that perhaps many environmentalist wish they could communicate to the wider public.
-loved the male-male couple. Those characters were wonderfully put together. There were moments of real human emotion. The dance scenes, I’m glad you just let them dance how they would normally instead of doing something fancy. They looked so real, so fragile. To quote reviews of Anne Frank, it was like watching deer through a gun sight. My heart went out to them.
-the use of dance overall. You got a sense of frustrated communication and of free expression. Always appropriately chosen, always striking. Liked it.
-Music choce was excellent. Witty, touching, always just right. Have you been takign lessons from Bioshock perhaps?

That’s all I’ve got right now. Please do ask if you’d like me to expand. I hope this has been what you were looking for.

Warm wishes to you. I look forward to seeing many more shows in the future.

Echo ‘Torture’ Scenes

Posted: February 16, 2011 in Creative Writing

From Miriam,

ECHO: Narcissus could be anyone to me. Sometimes, the pain, the rejection, the need for justice and … revenge, can maifest itself in a greater, and more malevolent form than the first man, the tiny human man, who broke your heart.
NARCISSUS: Hello? Why are you glaring at me like that?
ECHO: You really don’t remember…
NARCISSUS: You’ll have to fill me in… wait, do I know you?
ECHO: You will. (she stabs him)

NARCISSUS: Oh hello, you’re the pregnant girl, aren’t you?
ECHO: Yes, that’s right. (beaming)
NARCISSUS: (unsure) Well, congratulations, and good luck – you’ll need it here…
ECHO: (puzzled) Do you not recognise me?
NARCISSUS: (scrutinising her for the first time) Umm… Edith? You do look familiar, we have met. Just give me a moment, it begins with an ‘E’?
ECHO: Echo!
NARCISSUS: (in horror of realisation) Echo! Good to see you, its been a while.
ECHO: Nearly six months in fact… (she pats her pregnant stomach)
And do you remember our last night together?
NARCISSUS: How could I forget?
ECHO: Well, we managed to make a little something together…
NARCISSUS: You’re not serious?
ECHO: And you said you’d always stay with me, no matter what happened.
NARCISSUS: I suppose I did…
ECHO: Luckily, I get extra rations of water because of the baby.
NARCISSUS: (suddenly interested) You do?
ECHO: And everyone’s been so nice, and so helpful, and I’m hoping they’ll let me on the boat eventually because of the baby.
NARCISSUS: The boat, you say?
ECHO: Yes, but they think I need protection, being a woman travelling on her own, with a baby and all.
NARCISSUS: Just give me a while to think about this, umm… Echo?

CLOTHO: You’re not really pregnant, are you?
ECHO: Yes I am!
CLOTHO: I know bundled rags when I see them, now don’t be greedy, can I have one of those to dry my feet?
ECHO: I’m pregnant, and you’d better not tell Narcissus about any of your cruel accusations!
CLOTHO: Oh, I see, telling a little white lie so he’ll stay with you. Won’t be so little for long…
Don’t worry, I won’t tell, anyway, he might be pleased to hear there isn’t a baby a-coming – Children don’t last long here before they get forgotten, and starve, or get eaten slowly by the maggots.

Short reunion sketch

Posted: February 15, 2011 in Creative Writing

(In the background) He ran away from you. He didn’t want you. You let him… What if you had stopped him; imprisoned him, and made your own cell a cell for two?

(Cerberus walks on stage followed by Echo, who mid-stage grabs Cerberus and turns him around)

Why! Why! Why! Was I not good enough for you? Did I not please you? I did everything you did, everything. When you woke up I was by your side. When you went to swim who helped dry you? The sun? You were my sun… and my moon and my stars. You! No one else, there was never anyone else. I had suitors! Many men offered me their hand. But I wanted none of them. Every thought I had was of you. I even took my hair up once, aping another woman, simply because I saw you smile at her. I hated that woman. But so did you. I know you did. When I tore out her hair then finally you saw what I had. She was hideous! I know you only love pretty things. Pretty, pretty things. Did I not collect those beautiful shells for you, and when you were sleeping adorn them around you? They mirrored your beauty, magnified it. But when you woke up you scattered them everywhere, everywhere. You didn’t even look at them, or at me. I might as well have been a ghost. You passed me right on by. Now I’m telling you, no commanding you to look at me. Look at me! I deserve that, if anything I deserve that. Is it too much for me to ask? Don’t look away! I want to see those dead eyes of yours gaze into mine. Make them sparkle. Could you have at least pretended… I wouldn’t have minded. I can see things that others don’t, so my mother told me. I saw in you potential, boundless potential. Together, with me by your side, we could have realized it. All of it! Now what do you have, nothing. Without me you are nothing. Nothing… I’m sorry, I didn’t mean that. None of it was true. Without you I am nothing. Really, I do mean it. Please. We have a baby, a sweet baby. It will have your looks and your grace and your eyes and… you will be a good father, I know it. From the bottom of my heart I know that he’ll be a son you can be proud of. Stay with us. Stay, stay, stay here…

(Echo falls on her knees, clutching his legs. Cerberus does not move or try to, but he does not acknowledge the existence of the woman either)

Ben Cook

Discarded scenes

Posted: February 13, 2011 in Administrative

Discarded scenes from re-writes of the script:

Nice mirror.

Nice mop.

We are joined today by two distinguished residents of the docks. Let’s see what they can tell us about life in this fascinating landscape of intrigue and denial! (to NARCISSUS) Tell me, how long have you lived here.

You’ve never lived here!

I’ve lived here a long time.

Boy, I come here every day, I ain’t never seen you. Not in these parts.

Well, I’ve been here.

If you’ve been here, what’s your job? Everyone here has a job to do.

I…well, what’s yours?!

I come here every day to bail out the water. It’s an essential function!

And what do you hope will happen if you bail out the water? What do you think is under it?

Under the water? Have you ever really looked at this water? You can see shapes in it, patterns, figures.

All I can see is my own reflection.

There’s entire cities under there. Sparking under the water, shining up at us. The world that was, or maybe that could be. If we could reach them, we could get this whole mess cleared up. In the meantime…(hums ‘mopping till the birds come’)

In the meantime?

Look, we get by the best we can! On stale water and funky fish.

Tell me about the funky fish.

You wanna get some funky fish?

(CEREBRUS and HARPY come on)

I ain’t never heard of no funky fish!

(CEREBRUS and HARPY start playing chess. Between moves, HARPY goes backstage. NARCISSUS barges into and interrupts. Clock ticking music.)

I’ve enlisted these men as my research assistants. We are going to come up and as you some questions, if that is okay. Our subject of inquiry: the nature of hope! (questions people with SISYPHUS and NARCISSUS)

Where do your clothes come from? Where do you come from? Country? Family? Why did you leave? (university) Why is that important to you? What will that allow you to achieve?

(During the interaction, the children place ECHO in the box onstage. A bell rings to signal the end of the interaction, and all the characters thank the audience members and return them to their seats. SISYPHUS resumes mopping as they start going up.)

Transition Monologue

Posted: February 8, 2011 in Creative Writing

Transition Monologue

Just a short template for something to get Lewis out and about.

From living in a box, content over his place and egocentric about his appearance, to wanting to escape from his predicament, Lewis must combine his narcissistic personality with his desire for self-preservation, newly aroused by overhearing a conversation… or being involved in one.

What would it be like to no longer exist? (touches his face) All of what I have accomplished gone to waste. But no, ha, it’ll never happen. More chance of there being a drought. Yet if there was a chance… just a chance, of something happening to me, would it not be prudent, no damn well sensible of me, to make precautions. Fortify the box, gaffer tape the seams; if the waters rises I’ll rise with them, rise as high as they do. Who needs a child to insure one’s memories when you’ve got water-tight lining? The only thing I need to reflect my image is a pool of water…. and you, (looking into the water) you will clearly never desert me. Though a child would be a fine thing to have; least for the labour… Come to think of it, if everyone leaves, who will keep me in the luxury I am used to? Will I become no better than those men; who, to feed their families, scavenge and build what bird-forsaken contraptions they are able to devise. If I am to get my hands dirty, it’ll be to get the grease out of my hair. I need to find out more about these boats. Clearly, if there is any truth to the matter, it lies with them. It is hard to picture my existence tied up with others; others I have never even met, let alone done me some service. Well… if I must tolerate others to understand myself better, I am willing to sacrifice my time to that end. To hell with anybody that steps in my way, though. (exit)

Ben Cook