The Art of Darkness

Executive Director Amber Massie-Blomfield offers some personal reflections on the experience of sitting in a dark auditorium.

When it comes to audience participation, I’ve got form. I’ve had my face painted like a clown; I’ve told my secrets to an actor over whiskey in a private booth; I’ve been bathed, fed and held. I’ve even danced naked on stage at the Barbican – and liked it. So why am I suddenly getting my theatrical rocks off on sitting in the dark? 

The dark auditorium doesn’t seem very interested in who we are, or what we think. It insists on our silence. It ignores us, basically.* These are the very reasons why, in the contemporary theatre world, we’re quite rightly suspicious of it. When I wanted to figure out what the technical term for this kind of theatre is, I employed my typically sophisticated research method of asking Twitter. The responses I got reflected the prevalent attitude to the form: ‘Submissive Theatre’, ‘Theatre of Taxidermy’, ‘Deadly Theatre’,  ‘A New Play by David Hare’ (ouch). 

The contemporary theatre orbit I inhabit is marked by a commitment to the importance of the live, of sharing a communal experience. We want our presence, our particular presence, to matter, for the performance to acknowledge us, to respond if we let our (metaphorical or literal) cat loose to run across the stage. 

But isn’t it a pleasure, sometimes, not to be asked to make your presence felt? Of course an audience is never truly passive. In many ways the communal decision to support the experience by valiantly avoiding rustling our sweet papers and resisting the urge to check our Twitter accounts is just as beautiful as our willingness to donate our pubic hair to Bryony Kimmings.

But there's a whole spectrum between simply clapping at the end and being naked in a bag with Jamie Wood, and the value of the former shouldn’t be unduly denigrated. We live in a world in which we are constantly encouraged to project our identity, a society of spectacle in which the commodification of the individual’s public persona is such that often the impulse is to share an article or retweet a view before we’ve worked out if we genuinely agree with it – before we’ve even read it properly, sometimes, purely because it fits in with our online profile.

By the same token the rise of social media has in many ways been a hugely empowering force in enabling self-expression and creativity, and a host of brilliant artists have found ways to create theatre that responds to that experience – I’m thinking of the likes of Coney, Non Zero One, Beta Public, and very many others. But there is something to be said for theatre that provides a counterpoint to the ways in which we now commonly engage with ideas, creating a space for a different kind of contemplation. After all, as Chris Goode puts it elegantly (again on Twitter), ‘really watching, and really listening, is not not-doing-anything. They’re big things to do.’

There’s an appetite for this kind of experience, right now. Whilst the rise of ‘mindfulness’ has attracted its critics, it isn’t just the preserve of School of Life going hipsters anymore – it’s also forming part of daily school life, being practiced by workers in the City and Silicon Valley, and even the NHS is offering advice on the practice. Mindfulness is "the intentional, accepting and non-judgmental focus of one's attention on the emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment". That’s what sitting in the darkened auditorium demands of us, too.

My argument isn’t making the case for what we may indeed call, as the venerable Mr. Brook did, the ‘deadly’ theatre we’ve all experienced too often – and to be frank that kind of theatre is probably doing quite well without my help – but for this form of theatre as a proactive, and contemporary, artistic choice, that responds very specifically to the experience of living in the modern world.

It’s relevant to reflect on this now, when the subsidised arts sector is, quite rightly, going through a period of considering, perhaps more deeply than ever before, who consumes art and why. Making the audience sit quietly and watch naturally prompts difficult ethical and political questions around power relationships and volition. 

But sometimes, in the noisy world in which we live, it can feel like a gift.

* (Except, of course, for all the very good examples where it doesn’t)