AND GENERATION BOOK-ENDS
We took our seat at the Blackpool Grand Theatre and we realised quickly that, like most theatrical events in Blackpool, we were bringing the average age down. The tickets weren’t exactly expensive, so that excuse was no longer a viable. The only reason that we could think of is that theatre in Blackpool just doesn’t reach the younger audience somehow, maybe the younger generation don’t look what’s on, or aren’t used to looking themselves in the age where every event happens as an invite and then a notification. Perhaps they have already been driven out, alienated from the performative by too many years of un-engaging and escapist entertainment.
The problem being that, in Blackpool, theatre only applies to the book-end age groups of children, who are mercilessly dragged to see pantomimes or the latest reincarnation of the chuckle brothers zombie, and pensioners, who flock to endless reiterations of Agatha Christie mysteries and Alan Bennet plays.
We look around and the show is about to start, but the stalls are less than half full. I begin to feel rather lonely, like I was supposed to meet someone here but they, for some reason or another, decided not to turn up.
I have a theory. As our culture has evolved and as the theatre refused to adapt to the changing circumstances of media, less and less people could afford to go to theatre, leading theatres to charge more for admission. This will have priced-out my generation and ensured that only the relatively well off could afford such a leisure, meaning the retired, the middle/upper class and, by proxy, their children. Theatres would, of course, attempt to maximize this audience by catering to their tastes, of panto, nostalgia and un-engaged escapism.
Blackpool’s culture is sick, it is ill, it is a cancer. It’s schizophrenic. It clings to the family resort, with circuses, towers and piers. Archaic circus acts happen in the round, Blackpool’s borrowed imitation of the Eifel tower is always being held together by green maize and scaffolding, and under the imitation tower, imitation artists sing other peoples words at the ends of piers. But down the road from Blackpool rock is Blackpool’s Hyde; it’s strip clubs, its casinos, clubs, infectious racism and bigotry. Imagine a child holding a Blackpool balloon outside a strip club in front of a vomiting group of stags and hens and you’ll get the identity crisis. Someone take that picture. Nothing is Blackpool’s. Other than 999 What is Your Emergency. There you go, complicated societal and cultural problems summed up by a badly written and thought out paragraph.
LeftCoast (is that like the political left?) is an attempt to change that. Not the badly formulated paragraph, but the general theatre attendance of generation x, y and z. You can see this in the survey I am currently thumbing the corner of, it was given to me by an elderly woman who walked with her three legs up and down the aisles. It asks me a series of questions in English explicitly created for surveys (try not to think of the question asker in Monty Pythons Holy Grail, instead, try to imagine a human being asking you these questions using the wording below).
Q1. Are You?
Male Female Prefer not say
Q2. Do you have any comments about this event?
(this one’s tricky as we’ve not actually seen the show yet…)
Q3. Have you spent any time doing, or attened any creative, theatrical or musical activities, or any crafts, in the last 12 months?
Q4. Please enter your full postcode
Q6. How did you hear about this event?
Q7. Which age bracket you fall into?
under 16 35 to 44 55 to 64
16 to 24 45 to 54 65 or over
25 to 34 Prefer not to say
Q8. What is your ethnicity?
White British Black/Black British
White Other Other Ethnic
Mixed/Multiple Ethnic Background
Background Prefer not say
Q9. Are your day-to-day activities limited because of a health problem or disability which has lasted, or is expected to last, at least 12 monrths?
Yes, limited a little No
Yes, limited a lot Prefer not to say.
Q10. If you’d like to hear more about LeftCoast join our mailing list by writing your name and email below.
I preferred not to say.
I’d wager that that nights attendance weighed very heavily toward the higher age groups and this needs to change. Blam!! is an attempt to change. The sad thing is that while it is a valiant attempt at change, there were very few members of the target generation there to witness it.
I finish filling in the details that belong to this particular character, the corner of the survey well and truly curled by now, to what appears to be the reservoir dogs soundtrack.
you put the lime in the coconut…
here i am stuck in the middle with you…
little green bag…
Fitting, for both the town and the play, for it to be introduced by Quetin Taratino, a director with a penchant for pastiche.
The lights go black, the music stops and is replaced by a more electronic psychedelic musical hum.
A single body makes the awkward GCSE drama walk to centre stage.
Blam! presents the audience with a tone that should resonate with anyone who has ever worked in an office, I’d even go as far to suggest that it should vibrate anyone who has ever been part of the immaterial workforce, from retail to service; anyone who has ever had a boss, ever had ‘colleagues’, ever been watched and measured.
The ‘plot’, if the play could even be suggested to have one, centres around four men, three office workers as they play around the office whilst hiding from their boss. The boss is eventually accepted into the group and allowed into their games, this creates a certain dissonance but more on that later…
Any low-level worker (I don’t think I can speak for the higher ones but it may be same) knows the feeling of satisfaction that comes from small victories against their bosses. Small acts of rebellion and protest that get you through the day, perhaps you dordle in the toilet for a minute, spend a little longer than you need to at the water cooler, clock in before you’ve put your stuff in the locker, small reclamations of capitalisms most precious commodity; time. It follows that the most enjoyable forms of protest are wastes of time; they are play. We play games with each other or ourselves (something perhaps to be said about the thousands of minimized windows of games that you manage to shrink just before your boss piers over your shoulder…this is of course harder now they can electronically watch you but, as always, play will find a way).
The three workers flit between moments of work, or at least the performance of work (is there a difference anymore?), and play. These bonds of play create a solidarity that means they will cover for each other when one of them is late to work or comfort each other when one has suffered a particularly brutal status re-assertion from the boss. The comfort, of course, comes from a communal drink of caffeine based drinks.
The games they play are characteristically non-competitive and almost ritualistic, members of the game actively play along with losing for the purpose of the game. This is in direct opposition to the way the workforce is steered towards. For example, while the boss is safely turned away in his office, on a large raised platform, serving both practically and metaphorically to raise him above the staff under him. One worker re-appropriates his date-stamper by, after checking the coast is clear for his friends, clicking it on his desk. There is a brief pause as the worker in the cubical next to him deciphers the coded signal. He reaches for his own stamp and clicks it. The final worker gets the message and clicks his own. All three spring into action, the first reaches into his pile of papers and scrunches one into a ball, it cracks against his palms, the second rushes the wheels on his chair over to his bin, he stands up and points it towards the thirds cubicle who has stood up, ring binder in hand, cocked behind his head like a bat. The first throws the paper across the office, the third bats it towards the second who adjust the angle of his bin and catches it with a light flick against the rim. There are satisfied and excited breaths as they all sit down and resume their work performance. The boss comes to the edge of his border to investigate the noise but all he sees are dead-faced workers, tapping at their keyboards, muttering into their headsets.
The pieces pre-occupation with the office water-cooler brings to mind the saying ‘water cooler politics’ and the interactions between the men and the resulting changes in status drives the string of references that serves as the plot. First, when the boss suspects that his control is being threatened by shenanigans he swiftly and decisively reminds the workers who is in charge by stealing their resources, a pencil, and exercising his luxuries and control, by ripping up a piece of work and forcing the worker to start from scratch. This, however, does not deter the workers from play for long, it only serves to make them more determined to try bigger things.
Something must be said of the gender politics of the piece, whether they are intentional or not, it is our job as critical over-thinkers to read into things that have not asked to be read into. Women are left out the workspace, perhaps to avoid the change in dynamic the opposite sex would bring, but also to illustrate that the (office) work space is still a male environment and, even if women are sat in its chairs, its working, status exchanges, and politics are inherently male. The interactions of dominance of submission that occur in the work place all fit into the male archetype of the winner, the unflinching eye contact, the silver back sat in the highest tree. This can also be seen in Blam! through the games the men play as well as the fantasies they act out, most of which involve some form of violence or power fantasy. They range from being a gun-toting action hero, to a martial arts master, to a smoking cowboy card shark, to a self sacrificing war hero, to a super hero and a pro wrestler. The closest thing to a woman that exists is the water cooler/ office light being they make that is subsequently fought over, danced with and desired. In the absence of women, a woman is made to be desired and competed over. During one of the games I was reminded of the channel 4 show Spaced. In one particular episode one character ponders the magnificent powers of women, how they are the true creators, how man only destroys, how, if you put a group of women together for long enough their menstrual cycles will align. Another character expresses that men have an unspoken telepathy, regardless of age, race and creed. This is questioned. Shall we show him Timmy? not now Mike… A slow motion gun fight ensues as mime guns are drawn and ‘oooooh shiiiiiiiits’ are mouthed and deeply sounded, all take imaginary bullets but repeatedly rise again to keep fighting, re-enacting action clichés like sweeping machine gun fire, twanging throwing knives and guns jamming at worst possible times. Some of Blam!s gun fights seem to draw almost intentionally from this episode as the men seemingly improvise intense their gun fights.
Interestingly the piece contains incredibly little dialogue, nothing save a few grunts, sighs, cries, screams and the occasional ‘fuck’. This, practically, makes the piece very easy to tour, the Icelandic cast need only learn the appropriate swear words for each area and slot them into the appropriate places. Theoretically, however, the fact that the works roots lie clearly in mime raises some interesting issues. The plight of the three (or four) office inhabitants as they fight the surveillance and tedium of immaterial labour can be likened to something like Charlie Chaplin’s struggle against modernist Fordist forms of labour in Modern Times. Furthermore, the absence of a definite language means that, like Chaplin’s silent films, the piece becomes accessible to all languages and cultures under capitalism. It means that the office in Blam! could be any office anywhere on the planet, from the civil service in the UK, to the offices I’m sure the creators experienced in their home countries, to the call centres in India. Following this, it is important to note that the references the workers perform are all (or mostly, it depends if you count the martial arts segments as being from American or Oriental cinema) of Western film and media. This has something to say about the globalisation of the imagination. If this is truly any office, anywhere, the Everyoffice in Every Ltd. where everyman works, then perhaps the West’s greatest export is its culture and icons. The fantasies of capitalism are sold to the whole world who adopt them into their subconscious. The workers then take these narratives and re-appropriate them, a kind of detournement, and reclaim them. They escape their pacified existence by becoming the heroes they are fed. However, in Blam!‘s case, these references are used in place of words, they are what binds the staff, what binds the audience to the piece and they are the piece itself. Instead of using words, Blam! deals in the playful exchange of pre-packaged cultural commodities and references, maybe high jacking them and using them as the common ground to bring people together in play.
However, if this a Modern Times of our generation, then the question of the boss must be discussed. At first he is excluded from their games, scolding the workers when he catches them and punishing them accordingly. He screws up their hard work, meaning they have to start from scratch, and he stamps his authority on the space when he feels threatened. When he leaves the space, of course, the workers reclaim it once again through play. Eventually, he spots there games and seeks to join in the fun, he attempts some simple office based jokes. We get the impression that the rest of the staff have seen them before, they seem unimpressed and often continue with their work as if the bosses acts are inappropriate. Perhaps the boss learned these simple games on his own climb to the top (if he had one) but ultimately he does not understand the staff below him, he is from a different world. Eventually, he is allowed to join in with the games and the group accept, but with disastrous consequences. His status as the boss damages all the games they play, if he feels like he is losing or something he simply brings back his role as their boss and disciplines them as he sees fit. However, status is once again removed from him by his staff.
At the end of the piece, the imaginary games of the staff has literally destroyed the office space and we wonder how much of what we just saw was indeed make-believe and how much was reality. If they just pretended to destroy the building, how come the stage has capsized and there are really holes in the wall? As if the imaginary has broken through into the real… The act of the boss ‘playing’ with his staff has literally broken down the bureacratic walls. Play has brought everyone onto a level playing field.