Thoughts on “Mission Drift”, the breakdown of society and communal spectatorship

Apologies for the delay on this, have been working on sweet, heady nonsense. The majority of this post was written on the 28th June. I’ve also split it into two sections since later thoughts veer off onto a tangent.

Mission Drift and Post-Show Pondering

Last night’s (near) final trip to the theatre for a month was to see Mission Drift at the National’s temporary building, The Shed. Having missed out on Bullet Catch and hearing rave reviews for this play, I was pumped. Probably more so than anything in a long time. I mean, doesn’t this sound like a blast?:

Mission Drift is a pioneering journey across the USA in search of the character of American capitalism, told through atomic blasts, lizard ballet, and music that fuses Vegas glitz with rock and gospel.

Yes it does. You want to go. I did go. This is what I saw. “Anti-capitalist cabaret” as my friend put it. Delightful…and all supported by Neptune Investment Management Limited. Hmm. A quick search does not reveal whether Neptune were involved in any mortgage backed securities or collateralised debt obligations that were at the heart of the sub-prime crisis (and something Mission Drift pokes at), but I will give them the benefit of the doubt since I’m sure that level of irony doesn’t exist in theatre and it would be too easy a story about art being funded by those they critique as a way of keeping dissent quiet.

ANYWAY!

The point that the play made about capitalism wasn’t particularly new, but the form of it was relentlessly entertaining and at times beautiful. This was a rich production, packed with detail to the extent that it was sometimes a little hard to take it all in from my side-on view (the cheap seats). I particularly liked the central metaphor of the couple representing capitalism’s historic and brutal drive. There was a tenderness to them, and an urge to impress each other that served as a slight but welcome reminder that when people want to coldly make a tonne of cash, some human warmth (or lack there of) is somewhere at the root of it.

My favourite moment was when one half of the couple was describing The new New Amsterdam experience that would be part of an upcoming Vegas hotel. It was ridiculous, serious, then seriously ridiculous. It also made me want to put a hundred cameras into a theatre so as to snap a picture of every audience member at their moment of absolute catharsis and then sell them that moment after the show.

Speaking of…this show was followed by a discussion chaired by an American radio and TV presenter, with an economist and and a writer/performer forming the panel. As I sat in my seat waiting for it to begin, I felt a hint of trepidation. This could easily be a bit of an echo chamber: Who will come to this debate who isn’t already convinced by the view the play they’d just seen presented them with? It could be like the Christian Union meetings that I attended at uni where they asked themselves hard questions about their faith. Admirable intent and I praise the attempted rigour, but they unsuprisingly always came to the same conclusions.

The first few minutes of the discussion played up to those fears. Everything said was along the lines of my own thinking and there was a lot of head nodding across the board. So far, so meh. Thankfully, one of the panellists then came out with something that made me wince. The writer/performer said something along the lines of: “Everyone goes on about African poverty, but actually there’s poverty in America too.” I get that she’s just trying to refocus our minds on what poverty means, but the conflation of first and third world poverty isn’t particularly useful. I think an audience member, seated behind the panel, nearly twisted her neck off from all her head shaking triggered by that sentence.

People were properly engaged after that, though. I certainly was. For what must be the first time in a long time, it made me want to ask a question in a public Q+A. It was:

“You mentioned bubbles and depressed living standards – do you think that living standards in the West are themselves are an unsustainable bubble and what we’re seeing now is a sort of market correction?”

The economist informed me that living standards rose up to the 70s and has stagnated since then, so it’s not really a bubble. Astonishing. Especially since the 70s, according to one report, was the last time that the UK lived within its means, ecologically (can’t remember the source of that fact, but hunting it down). The upshot of a recession like this is that the rich get richer without trying, the poor get poorer despite trying, the ones in the middle stay the same and try not to rock the boat if it brings them in a paycheque.

As I left the discussion, I thought two things: 1) As entertaining as Mission Drift was, what was its purpose? It didn’t particularly challenge the audience who broadly agreed with the view it presented. Not everything must have a grand mission of course – if anything I prefer my entertainment first, politics second – but when you have a post show Q+A, it does somewhat suggest one. I had a heck of a ride, and then went home smiling to sleep and consume some mo’. I promise not to be a heartless mega-capitalist in future, but then if I’m going to see stuff at The Shed, I probably was never going to be.

2) When it comes to The State of the World, most people I talk to, especially in the arts, seems to throw the blame elsewhere, be it America (as one woman in the audience believed was the sole cause of this economic quagmire we’re in), the Conservative Party, or the banks/bankers (used interchangeably, with no distinction between type). At the heart of it though, it’s all of us isn’t it? We bemoan break down of community, of the social contract, of a reasonable life to all, but don’t really give time over to how our own addiction to convenience and our entitlement to certain aspirations, fuels the accumulation of debt and diffuses our social consciousness. Or at least to the extent that most of us don’t do anything much about what we purport to be concerned with.

For example, what’s your reaction to the words “baggage handler strike”. Is it more:

a) “Mmm – I wonder what their grievances are? Solidarity with my fellow working man/woman! I don’t mind waiting while they work this out.”

or

b) “This better not fuck up my holiday.”

fair” society that works as well as possible for as many people as possible, where those with little power are not exploited by those with lots and are treated with dignity.

Most people would say that’s the world they want to live in. But above that, above everything else, I believe for themselves people want the best lifestyle for the least cost. This personal desire often short circuits the one for the wider world.

Cost doesn’t just mean money. It can equally mean time, emotional investment etc. It’s the supermarket mentality. Decent enough quality + convenience + low price = total victory.

The host of the Mission Drift panel discussion talked about Reagan breaking the air traffic controller strike by firing them and that, basically, that was when he knew that it was game over for society as he knew it. But it’s not game over because of Reagan sacking the controllers (or Maggie smashing the unions.)

It’s game over because we all just want the fucking planes to fly.

———————————–

Spectatorship

So I wasn’t convinced by the talk, but I do respect this attempt at engagement with the audience of the piece. Over the next few months I hope to spend more time considering how an audience processes and responds to what it sees.

As a brief foray, I’m going to look at something my friend James (or “His Fritzcellency, The Right Hon. J Thomas Fritz, Sexquire” as he has asked to be known) has said. This is probably going to meander a fair bit, but I’ll come back with more considered thoughts down the line. James has been thinking about theatre and audiences for far longer and with much greater depth and clarity than I have and wrote the following in a thoughtful post about spectatorship in theatre vs. the exhilaration of a football crowd (highlights mine):

“Often I feel like what’s missing in a trip to the theatre is that sense of shared belonging, of mutual support that comes with the ritual. There is, instead, often a tension that exists between spectators watching performance (one that is felt particularly keenly in certain venues). A competitive element where your mind, in the silence of the auditorium, distractingly compares your experience with the experiences of those around you: Is the person next to me enjoying this more than I am? Why are they all laughing and I’m not? Am I understanding this better than the mate I brought along?”

…it would be nice to see more performances that unite those watching in exhilaration, that tap into and utilise an audience’s shared history and experience, that gives you time to talk to your neighbour and discover how they’re engaging with what’s going on in front of them. Maybe one that even lets you do a little bit of chanting in unison.

Even at the most meaningless football match, the most dreary, pointless mid-table end of season dead rubber, the fans in the stand still wail and shout at every near miss, every poor decision, because they’ve paid their money and want to share in the drama with those alongside them. The experience of shared spectatorship is, in the end, more important to the day out than the final score. There’s something rather wonderful in that. Ultimately I’d love to see more theatre that makes me want to grab the stranger next to me and hug them like a brother. That makes me leave the venue singing, or crying, and knowing everyone alongside me is doing the same.

Firstly, this immediately reminded me of Charlie Kaufman’s Hope Leaves The TheatreHave a little listen to that if you can.

Secondly, to me this is perhaps a little romanticised. There is, after all, a certain type of football experience that is disliked by fans all over that comes as a result of Money. The atmosphere is at a game is more likely to be better lower down the Football League. The fringe will always be a bit more ripe than Theatreland. (What’s the theatre equivalent of match day at Old Trafford? A long running West End Musical?) Some of the best chants I’ve heard at a football match were at a League 2 Plymouth vs. Wimbledon relegation scrap. Atmosphere at games like these and cup and play-off finals (the aftermath of which James wrote that post) is also far greater than at a dead rubber. They mean something. I’ve been to many, many terrible football games (More on this later).

Thirdly, I’d argue that, actually, a lot of sharing and talking does occur in theatres and there’s plenty of opportunity for it. I don’t feel competitive in an audience. Perhaps this is just me. I went to see Mission Drift  by myself and ended up chatting to the guy next to me. In fact, often when I go by myself I find someone to talk to about it that I don’t know. After Disgraced, I had a two hour chat with a man named David who I’d never met before and learned a heck of a lot. Often the interval (if there is one) serves as the point that you get to talk to your neighbour if you want. I have never, ever met a person or a group who wasn’t willing to have a natter.

Aside from direct interaction, the very reason I love to see stuff both in the theatre and the cinema is the atmosphere of an audience. The easy example is comedies, since a laugh shared is always better. It’s not just comedies though – one of the most powerful moments I shared with an audience was in a cinema screening of Waltz With Bashir when nobody in the audience moved for a full five minutes after the credits started to roll. A friend of mine told me that the best wedding she ever went to was a Quaker wedding conducted in absolute silence. Having suffered many Indian extravaganzas, that seemed incredible to me. Sharing silence. The world’s plenty loud as it is. It doesn’t mean you’re not sharing in the drama of a moment just because you’re silent.

Admittedly with most cinema/theatre, you can’t get the visceral thrill of scream in the middle of a show (relaxed performances aside). The rising popularity of stuff like quote and sing-a-longs at places like the Prince Charles Cinema in Leicester Square caters for the exclamatory thrill – I bloody love the film Starship Troopers, but perhaps if I’d got myself to a screening at the Prince Charles, where it’d be packed with fans, I would love it more. It’d be more like a football match, or a gig.*

I’d suggest that what James seems to enjoy about football matches and wants more of in his theatre watching is the ability to switch off and just enjoy the communal experience with people who still care about what they’re watching. The spectatorship James speaks of is storied by fandom and personal history, not an attempt to “understand”, which most drama leads you towards doing. Something Important Is Being Dramatised. You Better Appreciate, Fucker. I suppose it depends what you want from your experience: Do you want to witness something or be involved in it? What about if you don’t care going in?

Football-wise, I don’t really support a particular team, I’ve been to loads of games as a neutral. When that’s the case, the shit games are shit, the great games are great. The fans were always fun, but I’d come for the drama. I didn’t care about the history of the fans, I cared about the story unfolding on the pitch. I’ve been to plenty of games that have engrossed me, and I came to care about what was happening and I was happy with that. Most theatre/cinema is set up to exploit drama rather than history since most theatre/cinema goers are “neutrals”. (Are middle-class white folk the fans of The National Theatre? They come to see some terrible plays but keep on coming.) Going along not because of fandom, but spectacle. A great spectacle unites a crowd. It’s why finals draw a bigger crowd than the fan base of either team involved. People are attracted by the components being decent and can become enthralled, fan or not. It’s the reasoning behind the Olympics making people feel cheery. All being British and what not was great – but if we’d not won anything, the mood would’ve been a whole lot flatter.

One of the worst games I’ve ever seen involved watching Liverpool. The only reason I was talking to my fellow fans was because it was so fucking dull. There was little drama to share in. Conversely, the 2005 Champion’s League Final was one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen, period, and the fact that I’m not a Liverpool fan doesn’t particularly matter. Ultimately, that’s why I loved Mission Drift, despite my reservations. It in itself was a great experience that I was buzzing from and wanted to talk about afterwards. But then I think all great drama already does that. If you want a performance that lets you talk whilst the show’s going on, Fuerzabruta’s returning to London.

*There’s a post in this about going to a seated gig vs going to a standing gig. Same with football. Standing gives a crowd more energy. Maybe that’s the solution? All standing theatres, like the pit in the Globe…

One thought on “Thoughts on “Mission Drift”, the breakdown of society and communal spectatorship

  1. Oh my gosh, this was quite the essay. Here is my attempt to reply to at least part of this.

    Mission Drift. Some parts of this show I found really engaging and fun. And I LOVED the music. I actually downloaded the album. Nonetheless, I found it too long, and a bit rambling a lot of the time. A one hour version would have been just as effective, I think. Still, it was pretty cool.

    I also have an issue with plays simply showing audiences what they already believe and know. Not challenging them in any way. Some of the best stuff I’ve ever seen has deeply shaken me in some way.

    “Hope Leaves the Theater”! Awesome! I heard about it when it premiered. As a fan of Kaufman, I shall have a listen.

    I often go to the theater alone and NEVER talk to anybody. I admire the ease with which you’ve found people to chat with.

    I’ve never been to the pit in the Globe. I might be missing something…

    And… Starship Troopers? Really??? Shameful…. :P

    Sincerely,
    Señor Playwright

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