The Generation Trilogy


theatre, writing

The Generation Trilogy

The Guardian, 18 March 1998, Lyn Gardner

“80 minute blasts of lippy, witty dance theatre that combines the self-consciousness of the confessional with the manic energy of the dance floor. It may not all be strictly true, but it feels completely real”.

The Independent 29 May 1999, Rachel Halliburton

attracted an audience more familiar with club culture than theatre to witness its anatomy of modern relationships accompanied by brutal movement and language.

The Cambridge History of British Theatre, Volume 3, Liz Tomlin

In Frantic Assembly’s Generation Trilogy (1995-1997), highly skillful, high-energy movement sequences were set against the performers’ banal confessions of personal weakness.

The Generation Trilogy was a series of productions created by Frantic Assembly between 1995-1997, consisting of KLUB, Flesh and Zero, and for which I produced scripts. The idea of these shows constituting a trilogy came late in the day. Indeed, we didn’t speak of the Generation Trilogy until well into the Flesh tour (to the best of my recollection, it was actually during a tour of KLUB in Ecuador in the latter half of 1996 where we bounced around the idea of Zero, and this being a third part of series started with KLUB).

The challenge for these productions was to make theatre that could engage a broad range of audiences, including those for whom theatre was an archaic past-time for the middle-aged middle-classed punters who traditionally seemed to populate the auditoriums around the UK. We wanted to make theatre that we ourselves would want to take our mates to, that spoke to them thematically, aesthetically and politically.

An initial danger was that we would go down the route of producing conventionally formulaic theatre, but with elements of the topic thrown in to contemporize the material. Sitcoms set in nightclubs. Brothel dramas with high-energy mime and house music. Theatre’s great rival, television, is able to do this much better, less naff, and more readily accessible. To compete, we needed to focus on what theatre could do that television can’t, and draw on those strengths.

What the three pieces in the trilogy ultimately set out to do was find theatrical forms that best constituted the topics, whether it was the politics of club culture as in KLUB, the body in a consumption-addled society (Flesh), or loss of moorings at the end of the millennium (Zero). Although there are recurring themes throughout the three scripts – New Jerusalem (KLUB) finds parallels in Beautiful Britain (Flesh) and Modern Living (Zero); Stallion Run Through Me (Flesh) is echoed in Mind the Gap (Zero) and to a certain extent Ansaphone (KLUB), which in turn mirrors Fumbling Digits (Flesh) – for each show, the development found a point of departure in the topic, and the question how best to constitute the topic for the stage.

KLUB

In that spirit, KLUB started from the bottom up and encouraged a more communal engagement by the collaborators. The sense of community experienced in the 1990s club scene – epitomized and augmented by the drug of choice, Ecstasy – was one driving factor for the success of post-80s club culture. For KLUB to render the phenomenon in theatrical form, the production needed to have this quality in its DNA. The script was therefore presented as a collection of tracks, that the company were required to order and mix together according to what the team together decided was the right way. Lloyd Newson has complained that “[m]any dancers and actors are not interested in exploring new ground: they say, “Give me the steps” and “Where‟s the script?” (in Giannachi & Luckhurst, 1999: 109-110). This is a comfortable attitude to take, one which absolves a performer (and other members in the company) of much responsibility. But this goes against the experience of communality that KLUB’s subject matter entailed. Here, then, rather than the structure being simply handed down by some playwright on high, and with some director whipping the troupe into shape, the whole company were compelled to take joint control of what the show was to be. For example, although some of the tracks suggested which performers should voice what text, many of the tracks did not. As a result, text needed to be shared out among the company, by the company.

In addition, the names adopted for the onstage personae were the performers’ own. Again, this device sought to personalize the process and the product for the members of the company, but also to open the space to a more direct engagement of the audience, who were better able to identify with people they were sharing a space with (the performers, the auditorium) than with fictional characters in an imagined other-world.

Generation Trilogy frontAt the same time as the internal workings of the production process were being re-calibrated with reference to the club-culture themes of the piece, the marketing of the work also needed to loosen the moorings of public expectations pertaining to theatre. With vast swathes of the general public rejecting theatre as a relevant, contemporary cultural pursuit – including the majority of those in the clubbing community – the show’s marketing strategy sought to align the company with those detractors, while offering something more exciting and connected instead. Frantic’s previous production Look Back in Anger had secured audiences on the basis of it being a well-known play. This tapped into the members of the public who still chose to go to the theatre. A show like KLUB could neither rely on the same demographic, nor did the company want to limit its audience to those who were regular theatre-goers.

A number of narratives were produced that aimed to convince skeptics that this was not going to be just another theatre show. The first angle promoted the image of the shared devising process, underplaying any divisions of labour that would normally highlight the hierarchical structures inherent in much theatre. In this narrative, everyone had an equal say in the process.

A second narrative strand involved the vocal rejection of theatre influences. This narrative, of how the work drew on influences from outside theatre, but none (or very few) from any theatre tradition was put in place from early in Frantic’s life. The story is that the work drew on advertising, music and music videos, film and fashion, but names only a few general sources of inspiration from inside theatre.

Truth of the matter was that the work was heavily infused with influences from elsewhere in the contemporary theatre scene. The company’s early collaborators brought experience of having worked with a range of other practitioners, styles and companies, and imported these experiences into the rehearsal space and the eventual shows. Members of the company had, for instance, worked with the likes of La Fura del Baus, Dario Fo, DV8, Volcano Theatre, Blast Theory, David Glass Company, Kaboodle Theatre, and VTOL Dance, and had trained at various performance programmes around the country and abroad.These experiences were elemental to the input each member brought to the process.

Further inspiration was further found in contemporary dance, including the Flemish wave of Wim Vanderkeybus, Alain Platel and Arne Sierens, from the exhilarating risk a la LaLaLa Human Steps and Ultima Vez. There was a particular kind of conversational audience address, what Dominic Cavendish (The Independent, 1999) has referred to as the company’s “in-house style of sorts [], one that traded on their naivety, honesty and outright cheekiness. Frantic performers used their own names on stage and shared frank, seemingly autobiographical confessions with the audience”. The device was actually lifted directly from The Glee Club Performance Company (Mark Whitelaw and Eddie Aylward) in Manchester; the confessional style of much of the storytelling from the likes of Nigel Charnock and Ursula Martinez; further attempts at the blurring of reality and fiction that characterized the style led directly back to Orson Welles’ experiments with radio drama; the poeticism of some of the speeches from writers such as Steven Berkoff, Jim Cartwright and Peter Handke.

In sum, although Lyn Gardner (The Guardian, 1998) writes that “[a]ny similarity to any other company or theatrical tradition is entirely coincidental – the chances are that Frantic won’t have seen it”, in fact the chances were far higher that we knew the other companies’ work very well, and had probably had some form of contact with them. When Tom Morris (in interview) suggests that, “What was so refreshing was that they had no received notions about theatre, […] they had simply found that their ideas could be best expressed by standing in front of other people. They seemed to have invented a form of performance that was utterly uncomplicated and immediately engaging,” this was an image that had been cultivated for a purpose: to set the work apart from the regular theatre field, in order to engage those members of the public for whom the idea of thespians harking around the stage was a major turn-off. It was a marketing strategy.
Of course, this generated an idea of what the shows didn’t do, but there still needed to be a strand of narrative that filled the void in those early days regarding what the work then did do, what would make it an enticing option for a night out. The fetishization of the DJ in popular culture provided the company with one angle: the means to include the name of the most famous of UK clubs, The Haçienda, on the promotional materials. Andy Cleeton, a friend from Swansea and well-known to some of us on the local club circuit, was asked to allow us to use some of one of his mix-tapes in the show. Andy had recently won a Mixmag competition and had been rewarded with a slot at The Haçienda. Using some of his mix in KLUB allowed us also to include this information in the marketing.

The arrangement afforded both Andy and KLUB greater public exposure. With DJ-mania at its 1990s height, the narrative was too good for the press not to run with it (see here, here and here for example). It worked well enough for this sleight-of-hand to be continued in subsequent shows, both by Frantic, and elsewhere with Boilerhouse and 2021 (with LA club The Viper Room’s DJ Scab providing mixes for Circus and scratch). And the narrative continues to enchant: in a recent academic work, we read how the structure of KLUBwas discovered accidentally, by trying to recreate the atmosphere of a nightclub with the help of a DJ” (Sigal, 2013:184). There was, as I have argued above, very little that was accidental about the structure of the show. It was designed from the outset to generate a particular outcome. Furthermore, a brief overview of the actual playlist for the KLUB soundtrack lays waste the idea that the show was a house-infused club-experience: Ennio Morricone, Giovanni Girolamo Kapsburger, Simon Fisher Turner, White Zombie, Chemical Brothers, Everything But the Girl, Nine Inch Nails, Michael Nyman, Patrick Doyle, T-Rex. House music – the signature beat of the club scene – featured very sparsely in this show.

A final point to make in connection to the above is that KLUB never just sought to give the audience the experience of being in a nightclub. There would be no point to that. For an audience member to experience a club, they could far better do this in by visiting a club, rather than a theatre. The show tried to do theatre, pure and simple; good, exciting, compelling, political theatre. It simply sought to unpack what it was in people’s lives outside the club space, that made the experience inside the club such an essential part of a person’s life. (for more on the background to KLUB, see here)

Flesh

Much of the above, in terms of the way the creative process was organized, the marketing approach, and the finding form through the content, was continued in the following production. For Flesh, however, I felt that for the company to be able to follow through the communal approach, that it would liberate the process more if I wasn’t part of the initial devising process. In KLUB, there could still be a sense of deference to the script-writer, especially as the writer was involved in many other aspects of the production. The type of semi-open script described for KLUB was also written for the development of Flesh, but on the whole I stayed away from the rehearsals (this had practical reasons too, as I had touring commitments with other companies). I only really became involved in the production side of the show later when I took over from Steven as performer.

The topic of Flesh – the body as consumer product – lent itself very well to the theatrical medium. Here, the relationship between performer, again highlighting one reality by using the performers’ actual names – and audience members was somewhat different than that in KLUB. Where KLUB sought to engender a shared space where all were equal, and the personal was foregrounded, in Flesh the relationship was constituted as one of consumer and consumer-product, performer and client, a theatrical peepshow. It was not the performer as person that was of interest, it was the consumable parts of the whole. Once this relationship was foregrounded and established, it allowed for the show to play with the relationship, turn the mirror on the spectator, establish the audience member as an extra member in the ‘role play’, highlight guilty pleasures. This was no longer conversing with the audience as fellow men and women, but toying with the audience, jerking the proverbial leash. It furthermore used the audience as a cipher for society’s warped moralizing, standing in for its hypocrisies, ironies and contradictions. (for more on Flesh, see here)

Zero

The topic of Zero posed the challenge of how to represent the topic in theatrical form, so that it wasn’t simply adopting a conventional form and incorporating the topic material into it. The topic centered on the difficulties of making sense of the world at the turn of the century. The conundrum here was that the central theme pointed to a point in the future, Millennium Eve, where, like most New Year Eve parties, revellers sought to spend their time with strangers, rather than the people who meant most to them.

Having a narrative construct of a scene set in the future required of the overall theatrical device to be much more honest, with the company making explicit that the relationship here was one where they, the performers, were producing a potential future moment for the audience to contemplate. Simply pretending that the company were at a party in the future would just be a version of naturalism – a sitcom set in a nightclub – with the audience being required to suspend their disbelief and go along with it. This would be a huge departure and retreat from what was attempted with KLUB and Flesh.

The central premise for the script, as developed, aimed to represent a single moment – the millennial 00.00.00 – of a single person. This staged persona would be performed by all five members, each speaking as the character, with the persona changing gender according to who was speaking. In addition, the thoughts, uncertainties, doubts, anxieties and so on would always be reflected through the eyes of character’s five nearest and dearest, those s/he would not be with at the clock struck zero. This device sought to address the problem of performing the future as if you were already there by making the very artifice of the construct strong enough that the audience never for a minute were led to think that the performers were talking about themselves.

After some introductory words where the construct was explicitly set up and the performers for the evening introduced, they would not refer to themselves personally for the rest of the performance. From that point they would truthfully be the performers of the world of the central persona, and this could continue building on the performer-audience work previously developed in the first two shows in the trilogy. Ultimately, this was not accepted by the company, who felt that rather than this text representing a continuation of the work done in KLUB and Flesh, it was a departure from convention.

Democracy in creative practices, as in any other workplace setting, where each member has greater say in the direction of a project, also allows for moments when the lack of shared vision leads to a parting of ways. In Zero, I didn’t have the fight left in me, and was about to embark on an equally conflicted production, Seizer. We agreed – amicably, though not without pain – that it would be best for the production for us to go our separate ways, bringing an end to three years of collaboration within the changing configurations of Frantic Assembly.

The above is, of course, but one account of how The Generation Trilogy developed. Writing historical accounts is, as Barthes (1967) has argued, an act of constructing narrative objects from a myriad of potential candidate components. A historian, he argues, is “not so much a collector of facts as a collector and relater of signifiers; that is to say, he organizes them with the purpose of establishing positive meaning and filling the vacuum of pure, meaningless series.”
Writers with different epistemic status to events will produce differing reports, and each will adopt the genre conventions, where “the status of historical discourse is uniformly assertive, affirmative. The historical fact is linguistically associated with a privileged ontological status: we recount what has been, not what has not been, or what has been uncertain” (Barthes, 1967)
I have read other accounts that present somewhat different versions of how these shows were brought to fruition, what the underlying motives were, who was involved and in what ways. Some of these, both in the popular press and in academic publication, appear to be spin-offs from the marketing strategies cited above. It is for those writers to account for their own understandings of these events and what epistemic access they bring to the accounts. I offer mine into the overall mix, but only so that taken together, we may arrive at a more textured, holistic understanding of how the pieces came to be.

Scripts available here:

 

See also

Smith, Mark. 2013. Processes and rhetorics of writing in contemporary British devising: Frantic Assembly and Forced Entertainment. PhD thesis. University of York Available here
 Evans, Mark. 1999. Perceptions of the Body in the Dance/Theatre of Volcano and Frantic Assembly. Proceedings Momentum Dance/Theatre Conference, Manchester Metropolitan University Available here 
 Sigal, Sarah. 2013. The Role of the Writer and Authorship in New Collaborative Performance-Making in the United Kingdom from 2001-2010. Doctoral thesis, Goldsmiths, University of London. [Thesis] : Goldsmiths Research Online. Thesis available from here 

Review in The Financial Times

Generation Trilogy Back

 

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