Simon Stephens: Theatertreffen keynote speech

Only a few nights ago, Simon Stephens gave a keynote speech at Theatertreffen, the most prestigious place in Germany to have your work shown. The keynote is now available at the Theatertreffen blog, and is worth reading in full. It questions a whole host of the usual Anglophone assumptions about what ‘proper theatre’ is. As a non-Anglophone, I cannot make such claims, or at least cannot make them with the same effect. It comes across as nasty criticism. And, to some extent, it is none of my business (or it wouldn’t be, if I wasn’t living in Melbourne). But for those reasons it’s a text I hope many, many will read.

For copyright purposes (although I suspect Germans may not care about this too much), I am reporting only (my personal) highlight:

There is an assumption that I continue to confront when I talk about my work in Germany to other English theatre makers. It is the same assumption they have always had. They talk about it in the way people used to talk about food in England in the seventies and football in the eighties. It wasn’t proper food. It wasn’t proper football. It’s not proper theatre.

It sits under that artistic process of assimilation that happens on the rare occasions that British theatres programme work from abroad. We anglicise its presentation. We make actors act naturalistically and sets evoke the same naturalism. We chose the plays that most accord to our assumptions of what a play should be.

It infuriates me. Because the experience of seeing my plays produced in other countries has been such a constant provocation. Travel, in particular but not exclusively in my working relationship with Sebastian has allowed me to see the assumptions sitting under our methods of working in the UK, our deference to the author, our hunger for success, our need to interpret meaning through language and our distrust of the non-naturalistic as being culturally specific, not innate and also, at worst as being limited or small-minded. The polite arrogant assumptions of a small-minded nation.

I couldn’t have known that if I hadn’t have travelled. The closest I came to knowing that was in those experiences of reading plays written outside my theatre culture or better, seeing them produced. My assumptions were interrogated, my techniques exposed. This allowed me to take control of them. It empowered me. It exhilarated me. And it frightened me too. Sometimes when watching a play in a foreign culture you don’t know what to expect. Sometimes when planning a theatrical initiative or a conversation you don’t know expect. It’s like you’re eyes are closed. It’s like you’re blindfolded. Sometimes you step out into the rehearsal room or the theatre, the auditorium or the lecture hall and it’s terrifying and you fall. And not knowing that possibility exaggerates the fear. And sometimes, perhaps occasionally, you fly a bit. And when you do, I think it can be extraordinary.

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