“Experimental”. A word with very different meanings depending on your demographic. It could be something to do with labs. It could be Michael Nyman. It could be your more laissez-faire Friday night exploits. Or, if you’re that way inclined, it could be something to do with the mysterious world of drama.
Experimental theatre has a fairly complicated history – typically because the things which begin as novel are gradually adopted, quietly, into the mainstream, whilst those which are unpopular are usually forgotten. But this just means we can be relatively free with the label; it can encompass anything from the radical avant-garde to the simple, inoffensive bohemian. The question is not, then, whether experimental theatre of this sort is a good or bad thing (and heaven forfend us from the libraries on the subject), but, rather, whether or not it is something on which students ought to spend any amount of time.
It’s a truth universally acknowledged that student theatre is, well, just that. We’re pupils of the discipline – we’re still learning. In that sense, it is all an experiment: every actor overplays a scene; every director misunderstands a line; every producer risks a loss. So taking on something even more daring than the norm is really a double risk. This is borne out by the fact that 80% of all plays in Trinity are variants of Shakespeare, and everything else is written by someone famous anyway. Statistically accurate, I promise. We are naturally risk-averse, because it’s easier for everyone if the play is straightforward, popular, and will sell nicely.
Well, to hell with that. There (probably) isn’t a single thesp among you who hasn’t dreamed of doing something genuinely edgy, something radical, something new. Something to unsettle people; something to make them uncomfortable, something irresistibly compelling or scary or alluring. And that doesn’t mean a novel interpretation of Brecht. Nor does it necessarily mean new material, though huge kudos to those who’ve tried their hand at it: The Handmaid’s Tale and Ashurbanipal are still stuck in our collective consciousness. This is sort of the point: experimental theatre, whether good or bad, will stay with you. A charming and eloquent rendition of Lady Windermere’s Fan – well, how lovely, but it probably won’t.
Of course, there’s work required on the audience’s part too. It’s very easy to opt for a warm, comfortable evening at the Playhouse, and it’s rather a challenge to trek out to the badlands and wilderness that surround LMH’s college theatre. Especially when the rewards vary so much: guaranteed contentment, probably in the form of a nicely palatable musical, against the risk of having to sit through a dreadfully contrived and pretentious piece set on Mars in 2130 with scenery from Ancient Greece. Or something.
This is not, however, the approach we should be taking. The approach we should be taking is a damn sight more adventurous. Because the thing is that you might – might – just see something extraordinary. It might change your whole worldview. Any experimental theatre ought to challenge you; by definition it’s outside the realms of normal life. It’s supposed to push our boundaries, and if that’s done well it can verge on the revolutionary. And if it’s done badly? Well, so what. You’ll have saved about £5 from the unbought Playhouse ticket and you can reminisce about it and laugh. The goal is simply to try.
So, to all those of a theatrical bent, or anyone who’s bored in the vac and decided to read this because it had a vaguely interesting title: this is the challenge. Find the edges of your comfort zone and run them over with a lorry. Try something new today. Stop being boring.
PHOTO/ Claire Conceison