The Factory
Pleasance Courtyard, Edinburgh
August, 2008

Last issue’s Quote of the Fortnight came from a prodigious blog entry in which Chris Goode mused on theatremakers’ relationship(s) with the audience, and in particular the difference between “the audience” as a general, hypothetical entity considered during the making of a theatre piece and any actual audience encountered during a specific performance. As usual with the issue which appears at this time of year, I write this column from amidst the Edinburgh Festivals, and by chance, audience relationships have been a major theme for me today.

I may have recounted before how I once watched director Mike Bradwell teach a lesson to a young company whose show involved haranguing the audience. When a supposedly thuggish character yelled at Mike, with many profanities, to move somewhere else, Mike quietly, politely but firmly said, “No.” As matters continued and a second “hooligan” entered the argument, Mike gave them a way out: “Say ‘please’.” To do so would, of course, compel them to break character, and in the end they had to do just that. This wasn’t an ostentatious, public display of nuisance-making; I doubt that even half a dozen of us saw what was going on. But Mike’s point was that, if you make a piece of live performance that involves the audience being denied a role as passive consumers but still expected to respond passively to commands like that, you have unilaterally rewritten the theatrical compact for that event and you need to take into account the possibility that some might not choose to accept those new conditions. You need coping strategies.


As it happens, today I encountered almost exactly the same situation. Badac Theatre’s The Factory has been receiving warm reviews as a direct, harrowing evocation of the Holocaust, and in particular the industrial manner in which victims were processed at Auschwitz-Birkenau. It is a promenade piece which involves the audience being herded into a number of different spaces as they progress, with performers, to the gas chamber. The herding is done loudly, aggressively and abusively. Abuse need not, of course, be physical: as the troop compliment in Guantánamo could confirm, aural and/or verbal treatment can be quite forcefully abusive on its own. So, to be clear, these actors were not pretending to bellow at us: they were bellowing at us. They were not pretending to deafen us by prolonged metal-beating sessions in a confined, stone-walled space: to be sure, this was a symbol of physical beatings given, but the reality is that they were deafening us. Overall, they were not pretending, as the Sonderkommando in Auschwitz, to bully us: they, as actors, were bullying us.

So, around halfway through the hour-long piece, after three previous instances of “You! Fucking move!”, and in a position where only a handful of the audience might be even minimally disrupted, I did a Bradwell. I quietly but firmly said, “No” every time I was bellowed at to move, and then modified it to “Say ‘please’.” The performer simply kept bellowing “Move!” or “Fucking move!” around a dozen times, then moved on to the doorway into the next chamber, hung around for 30 seconds or so and left me there. No coping strategy at all. The show had broken down, for me at least, so I left.


Badac’s web site explains that as a result of their interest in violence and extremity “The actors will be led to a point of physical destruction, where they have no more to give; from this exhaustion, this freedom, we will explore their violence, we will pull from them their capacity for destruction and channel this into the play. The experience this creates for both the actors and the audience will be intense, disturbing, brutal and destructive. This is what we want.” The significant point here is that no thought whatever seems to have been given to the audience’s role in the performance transaction. It is assumed that we will comply, that we will acquiesce in their treatment of us. In Chris Goode’s terms, it is assumed that every instance of “an audience” – every particular grouping in an individual performance  –  will behave identically to “the audience”, the general hypothetical creature posited during the making of the piece. And that just isn’t so. Thus, the bitter irony arises that The Factory is intended as an indictment of an infernal process in which the administrators behaved with a certain complacency, taking the passive complicity of their human “throughput” for granted and making no allowances for individuality, and yet the piece itself behaves with exactly the same complacency and absence of allowances.

(As a footnote, this evening two of the performers spent half an hour shadowing me as I moved through the venue bar, but without making direct contact, as I presume they would have if they’d wanted to discuss the matter. It felt as if I were being “heavied” all over again, without the theatrical context to even pretend to sanction it. No doubt we shall actually talk to each other in the days to come; it could be interesting.)

Written for Theatre Record.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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