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  • Writer's pictureleodoulton

Acting Scandalous

Updated: Aug 7, 2023

A quiet note to theatrical creators, after a few shows I’ve seen.

A thought that occurs to me while my mouth is filled…

With a crunchie bar. [Wink]

See, that’s not actually scandalous. It’s the level of innuendo found in the Great British Bakeoff, or Strictly Come Dancing.

That is to say, two of the most popular family-oriented shows in the UK.

I think it might be good to stop saying that we’ve been scandalous when we haven’t been.

It’s a lie, you see, and lies undermine a show like nothing else.

Not artifice; that’s fine. But lies cut my trust in a work.

And I don’t like that.

While context is always important, other things that (in my experience) don’t generally cut the mustard for being actually scandalous (while being quite reasonable bawdiness/satire):

- Minority groups should have rights. [Yes. Those attending likely agree. If you’re using ‘ooh, scandal!’ as a way to get affirming whoops, why not go for affirming whoops directly? We can be delighted by work that celebrates itself and its audience in that way. Note: in the right context, this can of course be scandalous and daring.]

- I Have Mentioned A Sex Thing. [Again. Have you seen television lately? Albee managed to have a character who had sex with a goat and kissed his son, and yet it still feels… less than scandalous when seen onstage.]

- Vulgarity about admired figures. [Often righteous/deserved/funny. But it’s more likely to get a mild tutting than a shock-drop. It’s not got the same charge as Beyond The Fringe insulting them in a context when that was scandalous].

Many of these might be best answered with: who in your audience is likely to disagree? Who is likely to try and stop you?

I don’t like making scandalous theatre, generally. It’s not something I’ve found I do well. Mine has been over-cautious, while my efforts to try new things elsewhere have been (though I might flatter myself) quite successful.

I’d like to at some point make a brash, scandalous show. It’d be quite a different direction for me in a way that I suspect might be quite healthy for my practice.

So while I can’t quite call myself a maker of scandalous theatre, I can admire it.

However, I rarely see the point, unless there’s an actual taboo being broken.

If I were trying to make a scandalous piece, I’d ask myself:

1. What is the actual taboo here?

For example, I’d say that broadly speaking British society has a taboo on showing the direct impacts of violence, the most obvious example of which is film ratings systems. It’s fine to show someone being shot in a PG-13; not to show catastrophic damage and blood loss. I’m not sure it’s enough to shock anyone though.

What else might be an actual taboo? I’d say that various environmental campaigners, arguing against the underlying socio-economic structure of our society, hit the mark.

But that leads us to…

2. How can you present the taboo without wrapping it in tidy aesthetics?

Albee’s goat is surprising, sure, but in the tidy confines of the theatrical space it becomes… safe. Uncomfortable, perhaps, but safe.

The work I’ve seen that most frequently breaks this barrier is the type I’d class as ‘basement work’. Fringe, gritty work that’s live, thriving between genres and happily smashing the audience in the face with a broken bottle (not literally, though that might also be a taboo).

Because that kind of work’s much more likely to break taboos around society, and how we interact - another strong one in UK theatre. We do not expect, for example, to be shouted at, or addressed in certain ways.

Equally, it also tends to draw an audience who want to see those taboos broken.

3. How far can it go?

The most wonderful but shocking piece I’ve seen that I remember while writing this was by Belarus Free Theatre.

They, coming from a background of state oppression and resistance, showed various forms of torture simulated live onstage, the details of which I’d not like to explicitly state. I’d even believe they were actually replicating those acts, which some precautions.

It was dramatically justified, horrifying, contrasted with some of the funniest work I’ve ever seen as well, and reminded me ever since that much of the ‘shocking’ work on UK stages is nothing so.

By going so far, they reminded us of where the scandal actually lies. In their case, the ongoing reality of state oppression.

In yours, where?

Why show it?

And if it’s not actually shocking, why pretend it’s so?

Final Thoughts

I think that this is part of a wider thought, in some ways: a certain caution in much of the UK theatre and opera I’ve seen of late. The scandal and shock are concentrated in a few quite predictable, proper causes - and while often worthy, I find them less scandalous or shocking than the makers (or their marketing departments) seem to think.

A thought I articulated once was “there’s no point in writing avant-garde propaganda for small liberal audiences who already agree with it.”

Each part of that sentence is doing quite an important bit of lifting.

I suppose the above criteria for being scandalous tie into that: what is worth saying, is shocking, can be said by breaking aesthetics, and go far beyond the norm - and wouldn’t just attract an audience already inclined to such work and ideas?

My mind keeps straying back to the reaction to some Extinction Rebellion protests, and other aligned groups, reaching new audiences on major roads. They shock people like nothing in theatre I’ve heard of in my decade of practice.

What eccentricity do I - and other theatre makers enjoying reading this - believe in enough to be quite as shocking, and delightfully demonstrative, as that?

For I suspect that, unless our scandalous work has something of the mad, lonely creature in the wilderness howling while none will heed it, I will strive and fail to see the point.

Two cows stand by a hedge eating. They are not facing the camera.
Here is a picture of two cows for the algorithm. Maybe they've turned away because they're bored?


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