In June 2016 Artistic Associate Caitlin McLeod joined Simon Usher and Jack Tarlton at the Nottingham Playhouse for a new experiment as part of the Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival. Would Presence Theatre's Reading Group work with an audience? And could the spontaneity and sense of "unknowing" lead the actors, directors and audience to instinctively commune more deeply with the plays themselves?
No one knew what would happen. There really wasn't any way to get prepared. In fact, the only option was to throw caution to the wind and just see where the moments led you.
This, of course, was the first ever Presence Theatre Reading Group Live!, but it was also a philosophy we came to understand, when reading Jon Fosse aloud. Simon Usher explained to the acting ensemble (a terrific troupe of performers, mostly local, all superb) and the audience, that Fosse doesn't do well with a huge about of colour, lots of emotion, any preconceptions. In fact if you try too hard to make emotional and narrative sense of his writing, it just doesn't work. It starts to clog and jar against what is so intriguing in his plays: characters and their circumstances, seemingly simple and mundane, are often walking an extreme tightrope between life and death. His writing starts to make sense only when you let go and let it lead you. You can't force it somewhere meaningful and complex, it has to take you there. We had to adopt this philosophy pretty quickly with the Reading Group Live! because we genuinely had no idea what would come out the other side, but for me, it is a wonderful way to think about approaching text and performance.
The idea we did have, was to kick off the afternoon with our actors taking turns to read short plays by European playwrights. After the first few we would invite audience members to come down and populate a few empty seats and have a go with us. Of course there's always the possibility with these events that no one will budge from their seats. But the risk factor added spice to our day. And the unique attribute of the Reading Group is in fact this element of spice: no one knows exactly what will happen. We all discover the work together, here, now. It's a rare moment of true collective experience that we strive for in theatre, on the stage. And it's often extremely hard to manufacture. You have to trust the writing, and embrace the risk. During our afternoon at the Nottingham European Arts and Theatre Festival (neat16), we were rewarded by doing just that. Some of the best moments we witnessed, and the keenest discoveries about the Norweigan writer's work, along with our playwrights from Russia and Catalonia, Mikhail Durnenkov and Esteve Soler, came from hearing unsuspecting audience members, brave enough to come join our half moon of actors and directors, simply read the words cold. That's when they really began to sing. These non-performers brought only themselves and their curiosity, which turns out to be a whole lot. It's a good lesson for us directors and actors: often the less you bring to a text, the more you find. Each of the short pieces brought to neat16 held a similar, and surprisingly powerful colour. They were dark with only shards of light, they were often extremely absurd in theme and narrative and there was a certain sparseness to the form and the dialogue which resulted in a huge amount of comedy. The audience responded warmly, embracing each of the pieces with gusto and it became clear to us that they felt this kind of absurd, sparse, dark writing mirrored they way we are all experiencing the world today. It felt truthful, human, profound. It felt real.
Collectively, we left the Nottingham Playhouse with a few new philosophies to practise: prepare less, let go more, accept the absurdity of our world, and you'll enjoy where it takes you.