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Mark Fisher
Edinburgh, Scotland, United Kingdom
Follow me @markffisher and @writeabouttheat I am an Edinburgh-based freelance journalist and critic specialising in theatre and the arts. Publications I write for include the Guardian, Scotland on Sunday and the Scotsman. I am the author of The Edinburgh Fringe Survival Guide: how to make your show a success, published in February 2012 and How to Write About Theatre: A Manual for Critics, Students and Bloggers published in July 2015. From 2000-2003, I was the editor of The List magazine, Glasgow and Edinburgh's arts and events guide. See my website for more information and comprehensive Scottish theatre links.
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Monday, January 22, 2007

Big Brother and the theatre

Like the rest of the world, the Scot-Nits email group lapsed into a discussion of Big Brother last week. There was initially nothing to distinguish the comments from those of any other group, but it started to get interesting when people applied the debate to theatre. I've just thrown in my tuppance ha'penny worth with the following:

One area that hasn't been mentioned so far is documentary theatre, whether in the form Jeremy Weller pioneered in the early-90s with the Grassmarket Project, in which roles were played by homeless people, juvenile delinquents or sex workers, or in the form of verbatim plays such as Black Watch, The Exonerated, My Name is Rachel Corrie or Bloody Sunday.

Interestingly, such plays have stirred up a debate similar to a recent exchange here in which someone suggested Big Brother was in some way not real.

It's true that as soon as something real is mediated through the lens of an artist or an editor, it ceases to be real. The editors/directors make so many choices, from the selection of the subject in the first place to the editing of the script, that even the most faithful piece of documentary theatre has to be regarded as subjective.

But taking that as a given, I'm puzzled by some of the comments here about Big Brother that suggested the programme didn't present a good opportunity for actors to study human behaviour. One of the key reasons for the programme's success is that it allows us to watch what happens when a group of people are put together in extraordinary circumstances.

On a literal or metaphorical level it's what theatre is about, whether it's Shakespeare seeing what happens when a bunch of sailors get thrown together on an island in The Tempest or Arthur Miller seeing what happens when a family tries to live together in the face of a lie in All My Sons.

Now, you can make all sorts of criticisms of Big Brother - that it celebrates the cult of personality, that it is cynical in its casting (though surely no more cynical than casting Iago in the same play as Othello), that it doesn't have the dramatic arc of a properly constructed play and, most damning to my mind, that it's rather tedious - but to suggest that it doesn't reflect some aspect of life as we know it is to be worryingly dismissive of the huge audiences that watch it.

If you're subscribed to this mailing list, you probably think theatre can capture the human condition better than Big Brother. Fair enough. I agree with you. But Tom Freeman is right when he says practitioners risk losing touch with their audiences if they regard theatre as an implicitly higher artform. The human needs that Big Brother is catering to are not so different to the needs theatre is catering to.

Some theatre is better than Big Brother. A lot is worse. It'd be a foolish theatre practitioner who dismissed the programme's phenomenal success without analysing why it was so popular.

The fact that theatre has provided us with Black Watch, The Exonerated, My Name is Rachel Corrie, Bloody Sunday and many more suggests that society's recent thirst for "reality" extends beyond Pop Idol and Wife Swap. I'm not saying verbatim theatre is the way forward - my guess is that it's peaked as a form - but the reality format is currently satisfying a deep human need that people are bothered to talk about. Anyone working in theatre should be getting to grips with what that need is.

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