Alan Read is the Department Chair of Theater at King’s College London, director of the Performance Foundation, author of numerous titles on theater, and writes and broadcasts for BBC Radio 4. In Fall 2015, he taught “Theater Capital” to Berkeley students in London as part of UC Berkeley’s Global Edge program.
“From the West End to Westminster Abbey and many performances in between, plus a pair of gold lamé boots”
We’re delighted to have you working with our Berkeley students in London. Can you tell us how you became involved in the Berkeley Global Edge program?
My esteemed colleague Professor Catherine Cole at UC Berkeley contacted me asking if I could suggest anyone in London who might take on this new program. Catherine and her team were looking for a class that met the rigorous standards and imagination of their own Berkeley theatre programmes. I did my PhD at the University of Washington in Seattle in the 1970s and had always looked south down I-5 with admiration for what Berkeley represented, not least of all in the performing arts. So, while pretending to think of other potential course leaders for this, I always knew I wanted to do it myself.
What does the “Theater Capital” course entail?
Theater Capital has a self-explanatory subtitle: Performance in London/London in Performance. King’s College London – Strand Campus (where I first developed the course) is at the heart of ‘Theatreland’ (the West End, a vibrant, highly-profitable center of world theatre), which offers untold opportunities. But I also want students to explore the broad spectrum of performance beyond these stages—from the performances evident amongst lawyers in the Royal Courts of Justice, to the ceremony on the street as part of the Lord Mayor’s annual procession, and amongst clergy in Westminster Abbey—events which are all a few minutes walk away from King’s College and the Berkeley base at ACCENT.
For the Global Edge program, I rethought the course with first-semester Berkeley students in mind: students whose initial engagement with the “Berkeley way” (of which I am a huge admirer) would be their London experience. I will leave it to my first class to spread the word of what they thought worked and did not, but over the semester of fourteen classes, four site visits and six performances we had a 95% attendance rate, which, given how easy it is to catch a cold during the fall in the London, was not bad.
Can you give us an overview of the semester?
It was a very full program of work. Before we even sat in class we were sitting in the The Purcell Room seeing Western Society performed by Gob Squad, one of Europe’s leading performance companies whose work combines media technologies, virtuosity of practice, contemporary themes and political forms of participation. Indeed only some of us were in the audience as within half an hour of the show Western Society starting, two members of the Berkeley group had been taken up onto the stage alongside six other audience members to participate in the second hour of the show.
Ivan He and Ruby Armstrong were integral to the performance and received a standing ovation alongside other members of the company. It is an honour as a professor of theatre to find that one’s first act of ‘assessing’ a student is as an audience member applauding those students to the rafters. They were courageous and funny, cool and clever, which is what I expected of Berkeley students, but did not expect to see manifested quite so soon on a prestigious London stage in front of a packed, cheering auditorium.
After this start, the course fell into place beautifully. There were 40 Berkeley students in the class, which made for a full and coherent classroom. Each Friday, we had three hours of concentrated study at the ACCENT base about the experiences we had of theater, and site visits to the Royal Courts of Justice, the Old Bailey, Tate Modern, and the 800th staging of the Lord Mayor’s Show. What we were aiming for was a rigorous introduction to performance in London without excluding the manifest ways in which the city itself is a Theatre capital, a constant churn of multifarious performances through which London establishes what it can be and do (and cannot do).
Our discussions also took seriously what was happening around us during the semester, including, for instance, considering the Paris atrocities at the Bataclan for what they were: a savage attack on the students’ own generation within what was a ‘theatre’ in the midst of a performance. We worked on an idea that comes from a Parisian writer, Roland Barthes, that ‘texts’ are not just written things, but complex sign systems that exist in the world, within which ambiguous meanings are generated. Our task, following Barthes, was to reveal ways in which such performances can help us to understand our surroundings better, and of course to live more fully and justly within that world alongside others with very different understandings of that ‘same’ world.
In one assessment exercise, titled ‘Theatre Capital’, groups of five students each presented twelve images of the city that they had captured on their mobile phones, and analysed ways in which these images of urban life were saturated with performances.
If you cannot see the embedded performances that make up this image (other than the obvious image of the pan player to the right of the proscenium frame), then you might want to seek out a member of this class and ask them where the performances are, what they are, and why they make a difference to everything happening here. Or, you might want to come join next year’s Theatre Capital program in London – you would be welcome.
What other plays did the class see? Out of all the cultural opportunities in London, why these?
We were graced with a very fine season of theater this fall, and were brilliantly supported by Sara in the London ACCENT office who has a magic way of getting a large number of tickets for very hard-to-attend shows. For instance, we saw one of the first nights of Martin McDonagh’s (scriptwriter of In Bruges) celebrated play Hangmen at the beautiful Royal Court Theatre, which received 5-star reviews, and has since transferred to the West End to huge acclaim. We saw the new play Pomona, a dystopian drama exploring a void space in a city where something appalling is happening, staged at the National Theatre’s experimental space, The Shed. We then saw a classic work, Timberlake Wertenbaker’s Our Country’s Good on the huge Olivier Stage of the National, and to offset this spectacular political historical drama we spent an evening at the Young Vic with the amazing Belarus Free Theatre and their captivating production of King Lear. This company is in exile from their home country – threatened with incarceration or even death were they to return.
Now, I have seen many King Lears, but only one student within the group had seen a performance of the play, so this was a big call to introduce students to the Bard’s greatest work in this way (not at the Royal Shakespeare Company or the Globe). I knew it was really no risk as the Belarus Free Theatre artists are preeminent performers in world theatre and showed us why with a dizzying, coruscating staging of the play that, again, brought the audience to its feet. Two hours after the show ended, the Berkeley students were still in the auditorium, having downed Belarusian herring snacks brought to them by the company, discussing the relationship of the work to issues of gerontology with a specialist from a neurological centre in a London hospital. Intellectual stamina indeed – just what I expected.
Our final and sixth show was Wallace Shawn’s Evening at the Talk House. The group could not believe that Wallace Shawn, who has always acted in his own complex work, turned out to be the short, round guy from Gossip Girl. He is a brilliantly imaginative and scabrous writer, evidenced by this strangely topical play about a world in which theatre has disappeared and actors are either in long-running TV series or assigned to operate as marksmen deploying drones that execute people.
What was your impression of Berkeley students?
Well, I am missing them on Friday mornings. They brought the sun and extended summer well into fall. They were alert, focused, collegiate and supportive of each other in discussion.
I am a demonstrative teacher in front of a class and tend to talk quite a lot. But amongst this company I always felt that the commitment was to the experiences we had shared, and from the first night at Gob Squad’s Western Society I knew we would be fine. The show started with a clock to the rear of the stage counting through the digits of the last million years, in front of which entered two of the actors dressed in thigh high gold lamé boots – and nothing else. Since the ending of censorship in London theatre in 1968, no one turns a hair at such things on the London stage, and the group similarly took everything in stride – from being covered in liquids during Belarus Free Theatre’s King Lear, to discovering that the strange person sitting next to them in their underpants in Pomona was one of the psychopathic characters about to enter the scene. In short, Berkeley students seem to recognize that in the end, contrary to Shakespeare, all the world is not a stage, and that in performance there are very specific constraints that police the borders between theatre and life. It might be challenging but you are probably in as safe a place as you can be amongst theatre people. They’re not a bad lot.
With all these tremendous experiences, can you pin down what was, to you, the most exciting part of this course?
Spending the very last Friday of the semester sitting together on the floor of the Turbine Hall in Tate Modern amidst the Mexican artist Abraham Cruzvillegas’ vast installation Empty Lot. We discussed whether the plants that surrounded us had any kind of parliament of their own, who might speak up for them in the current environmental crisis, and whether performance offered any rhetorics (modes of expression) that might help bring them close to the human collective.
The installation work, which had a strong ecological element, had, rather ironically, been funded by the car-maker Hyundai, which raised some interesting questions about arts sponsorship and Tate’s dependency on fossil fuel centered-funding. We were there helping them to kick the habit and were fully borne out by our commitment, some days later, when the Paris Climate Accord was eventually signed. The Berkeley students had great insights to offer weighing up the many sides of these challenging arguments.
Hearing back from each student over tea at the beautiful Wallace Collection later on that last Friday, before they left for home, of what it had meant to them to have this opportunity to be in London, to live and to learn, was more than a pleasure. Roll on next year.