Extract: Fifty Playwrights On Their Craft, interview with Chris Goode

An extract from Fifty Playwrights On Their Craft by Caroline Jester and Caridad Svich, published by Methuen Drama, November 2017. 

Chris Goode is a writer, director, performer and musician, and lead artist of Chris Goode & Company. His diverse body of work has been seen in venues ranging from Sydney Opera House and Tate Modern to the most marginal spaces on the London fringe. His credits include four Fringe First award-winning shows: Men in the CitiesMonkey BarsKiss of Life, and (with Unlimited Theatre) Neutrino; he also won the Headlong/Gate New Directions Award for his radical version of Chekhov, ...SISTERS, at the Gate Theatre. Chris is a former artistic director of Camden People's Theatre and he now directs the all-male ensemble Ponyboy Curtis. He is the author of The Forest and the Field, a book on theatre and performance published by Oberon.

Caridad Svich What is a playwright?

Chris Goode I’m sure I won’t be the only respondent to this question to lament the cruelly deceptive homophony of ‘write’ and ‘wright’, which has done so much to cement the activity of playwrights (in the UK and US at least) unhelpfully within a literary tradition. As my friend, the actor Gemma Brockis, passionately insists: plays are not written, but wrought ― that is, worked: and the work of playwrighting may or may not involve writing ― or, for that matter, the ‘play’ object as we tend to understand it.

I’d like to consider the playwright to be the author/maker of play (or of the space for or container of play) rather than of a play. I like Peter Handke’s thing, in The Long Way Round, where he contrasts the world of nature with the world of games. When you get to the end of a game, you say: “What next?” But nature continues, limitlessly. It may be true that play cannot extend itself without territorial boundaries, but one can, as a playwright, shape or inflect play without ever having to accept or concede to ‘the play’ in its commodity form.

Another way of articulating the same idea: these days I tell people that I don’t really make things: I make the space for things to happen in. That said, I don’t often call myself a playwright. Maybe I will, now.

CS: Does the audience influence your writing?

CG: This is wonderfully hard to track, but I’m inclined to say no. I’m quite sure, in a way, that it can’t. Audiences are specific groupings of people under particular conditions, in anticipation of and response to certain events. We struggle to meet them, especially as writers. Actors glimpse them, at best. The audience that attends a specific occasion is unique to it, and the next audience is its own separate entity. It makes no sense to talk of “the audience” in a generalised way. What we are talking about when we talk about “the audience” at the point when we are writing is, necessarily, our fear of the audience, our projection into the void where the audience will eventually convene.

There are, of course, moments of practical judgement that have to inform writing. Do I have to explain this reference? Do I need to signal this dynamic shift more clearly? (The one I try to expunge from my thinking: Will an audience get this?) My rule of thumb is that there’s no reason to suppose an audience is, generally, any less intelligent or informed than I am or my colleagues are: but I guess I will, sometimes, spell something out a bit more, just to be sure, if the fluency of communication in a passage feels crucial and I don’t want anyone to get hung up on something they think they may have misunderstood. Or, alternatively ― and perhaps more successfully ― I’ll make it fuzzier and more hospitable, so that an audience that completely understands what I’m getting at isn’t necessarily at an advantage over one that doesn’t.

CS: Do your ideas come from a sudden idea or conceit or are they more planned?

CG: Occasionally, it’s a sudden high-concept idea that comes like a lightning bolt, more or less fully formed. Monkey Bars, for example, came that way ― an unforeseen inspiration which took five minutes or less to unfold into its final shape, as I walked down a road in Oxford on my way to a gig. More usually, I’m suspicious of ideas that seem to be complete: I’ll often hang on to a proposition until something wholly or largely unconnected with it comes additionally into my head and some kind of exciting dissonance is produced.

For example, I really wanted to write a play for the fiftieth anniversary of the Windscale nuclear accident, but it didn’t have enough energy to it until I allowed it to rub up against an unconnected urge ― to write about the death of the film actor River Phoenix. You’re then frantically positing connections and torsions that might allow these two topics to coexist. The resulting play, Speed Death of the Radiant Child, contains ― or can’t quite wholly contain ― both those strands, for better or worse, and the strangeness of their entangling becomes, in a sense, the traction in the play, where the ‘drama’ would otherwise have been. I’m excited by complexity (because it seems to me to be blessedly true), and not least by moments where complexity is a product or function of the irrational being taken seriously.

CS: How do you negotiate areas of trouble in your work, in terms of your engagement with content and form, and your relationship to the audience?

CG: There’s been quite a strong shift for me in recent years around these questions. In pieces like The Forest and the Field and Keep Breathing my aim was to create for the audience a ‘safe’ space to dwell in while questions hopefully arose from the work, concerning the whole category of the social, and the ways in which radical change might become possible without that potential immediately becoming occluded by defensiveness and fear. It is both a strength and a weakness of those pieces that they attempt to foster a fairly gently tremulating serenity, a sense of movement arguably less like revolution and more like head massage. This partly has to do with my role as ‘storyteller’ in those spaces: I present myself as a trustworthy guide to a reimagined future of which, I tacitly imply, we don’t need to be afraid.

From GOD/HEAD onwards, I suppose I am starting to strain at that leash. The ‘safe haven’ of the work feels like it can’t be an end in itself; on the contrary, what I’m putting in place is a set of frames and crash-mats that support the idea of risk-taking and jeopardy and the attempting of difficult moves. Only a more turbulent scene, in which my role is not just to embrace but to agitate, can permit the ethical questions embedded in the form of the work to come through dynamically and unsettlingly.

Sometimes, it’s true, I’ve used the gentler ‘host’ voice in the service of misdirection: for example, in The Adventures of Wound Man and Shirley, I tell a story about (essentially) a romantic relationship between a young gay teenager and an eccentric middle-aged man who’s clearly in to boys; but the magic realist tenor of the work and the trustworthiness of the storytelling voice I employ always tend to neutralise what in other circumstances might be, for some audiences, a pretty disquieting narrative. In part, five years down the line, Men in the Cities, my next fictional storytelling piece, is energised by a determination to refuse that voice that soothes as it provokes: and it’s no accident that, among many strands, that piece presents a much more confusing and volatile picture of a sexually fixated boy and any number of confounded older men in his orbit.

With the exception I guess of my 2008 play Infinite Lives, about an agoraphobic porn addict, Men in the Cities is perhaps the first time since Past the Line, Between the Land in 2003 (a devised piece responding to the UK’s baleful involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan) where I start to want to dig down past the (to me) appealingly liquid, paradigmatically queer ethical speculations of the work, and really engage with the most fundamental root-position moral questions around patriarchy and capitalism, and around individual freedoms versus state oversight. I’m currently writing a play called Freedom which pressurizes these questions still further, particularly in the half-light of recent strains of accelerationist thought. This turn from ethical thinking-aloud to moral excavation feels in a certain sense untheatrical, but in a way that I like. Paul Goodman says: “What you needn’t watch ― for instance, what you can read ― is not part of a play, and too much of it kills a play.” In that sense, subjecting a scripted play to a raft of possible moral orientations is a kind of self-harm or masochism, which, again, can have the function of drama in an otherwise largely postdramatic terrain. As Ron Sexsmith sings: “How can this song survive?”

CS: I am deeply interested in the idea that the 'small' or what may be perceived as a 'weak' voice in society actually can radiate out with the power of its own truth and integrity.

CG: I think theatre is, first and foremost perhaps, a technology of weakness. Weakness is the index of its appeal to intimacy; and when, as it will, for various reasons, it sets its heart on spectacle, it doesn’t so much scale up as balloon out, so that its vulnerability remains permanently embedded in its condition. Those who seek to eliminate the faultline in theatre fundamentally misunderstand its nature. It is all faultlines: it is itself the faultline that we can introduce into other social configurations to make them ecstatically collapse.

I have been very influenced in recent years by John Holloway’s work on the idea of the ‘crack’: that captialism will not be overwhelmed, but undermined. Theatre is extraordinarily well-placed to author cracks in the ideological edifices that dominate our lives under capitalism.

And yes, I’m a fan, too, of smallness, and the ways in which the small can signify. For several years I collaborated with a performing artist, Jonny Liron, under the duo name Action one19: and much of what we did, we did behind the closed doors of an extremely marginal live/work warehouse space, just the two of us, each other’s audience ―  or perhaps, more accurately, each other’s witness. Because the collaborative partnership was so small, and so intense, it could contain anything and everything we brought to it. It was intrepid and queer and, on the whole, exceedingly accurate. I would sometimes watch Jonny improvising an angry fractured text, or cutting his arm with a scalpel, or wilfully and romantically making his exposed asshole the centre of attention within the performance frame, and no one else would be present, and yet I’d feel quite justified in saying to him that what we were doing was the most important work being done anywhere at that time. Which in one sense will seem a new standard by which to measure vanity and delusion: but also it still rings true to me. If we truly believe ― as Jonny and I did ― that theatre is uniquely able to change a world that desperately needs changing; and that we are developing a theatrical vocabulary and syntax that is designed wholly and explicitly to help us create that change; and that we don’t know of any other project that so insistently and urgently and unstintingly addresses that objective: then provided we find, at the right times, a way of starting to share the work with others, we are justified in thinking of our work as being exactly as important as all that. If nothing else, this gives the work a kind of altitude that most theatre and live art understandably refuses and even disdains. We save each other’s lives by saving the life of the work.

CS: How does play-writing and the playwright fit into the digital age of storytelling?

CG: There is, to my mind, a profound, and not unproductive, tension here. The fundamentally intrinsic medium of theatre, it seems to me, is realtime, while the dynamic permissiveness of digital is predicated on non-linearity. Perhaps the contemporary play-maker occupies a pivotal position at the crux of that tension. I remember being told as an undergraduate, by the director Ceri Sherlock, that the task of theatre makers of my generation would be to free ourselves from the tyranny of linear narrative; to some extent that’s still on the to-do list, twenty years on.

It is true that some of my works for theatre ― I’m thinking above all of Men in the Cities and Weaklings ― operate through a syntax that borrows heavily from the hypertextual, jump-cutting across layers of material and different orders of speculation and reality. There’s lots that storytellers can do now to harness the energy and sheer velocity of digital, even in the most rudimentary oral or literary formats. I also think we’re in desperate need of a much more fully developed ethics of the digital, and storytellers have an important role in sounding out those new relational maps. But maybe the burgeoning of digital forms will ultimately promote the divergence of play-making and storytelling as distinct disciplines? At any rate, theatre makers will still have to account, always, for the movement of time through their work.

 Interview reproduced with the kind permission of the author and their legal representation © Chris Goode 2017

Fifty Playwrights On Their Craft is now available published by Methuen Drama.