Rogues & Vagabonds

theatre, film & tv past and present 2001-2008 & 2013…

Archive Interview • BONNIE GREER • Road to Nirvana • 2006


5th September, 2015: Bonnie Greer is giving a new talk at the Freedom Festival in Hull, entitled Malcolm X Does The Talk Shows, reflecting on her experiences of growing up on the South Side of Chicago during the Civil Rights Movement of the early 60s.

Writer and cultural commentator Bonnie Greer has been making theatre since her childhood, and went on to study theatre with Mamet at university. On the Board of Theatre Royal Stratford East and Chair of the playwright’s resource Writernet, Greer has now turned her hand to producing. “I love making possible the kind of theatre that I think should be there” because she is frustrated by the staple diet of current British theatre.

So when director friend Colin McFarlane approached Greer about the idea of staging an Arthur Kopit play, she immediately snapped up the opportunity. Little known in the UK, Kopit was Greer’s theatrical mentor, “the American version of Pinter, except that he’s funnier; Beckett, except that his wit is lighter,” she effuses. But why Road to Nirvana, and why now?

Kopit’s black comedy depicts two film-makers desperate for notoriety in the film industry. The calculating Al persuades naïve Jerry to become his partner in making a crude adaptation of Moby Dick with the revered rock star, Nirvana. Greer describes the play as “a satire on our obsession with celebrity culture and what people will do to become successful and famous”. “You’re gonna come out of there thinking, ‘wow, what age do we live in now?’”

Though written 15 years ago, Road to Nirvana chimes with the contemporary rise of reality TV and celebrity magazines. “People are hungry to talk about the madness of celebrity” and yet “very few writers have analysed celebrity culture”. The subject has been well documented in film; what can theatre add to the debate?

For a play that deals with the desire for social visibility and the lack of human contact, it feels fitting that Kopit should communicate this to a communal, live audience. “He gives it to you in a way that you wouldn’t find on the television or on film. He gives it to you as part of a community… Arthur understands how audiences work. He plays the audience like a violin.”

Just as Al manipulates Jerry into agreeing to his business proposal, so Kopit manipulates the audience, through the unexpected twists and stark shocks of his dark script. But is there a danger that today’s audiences have become anaesthetised – have we, as audience members, lost the ability to be shocked, or has theatre lost the ability to shock? “Our consciousness as audiences has been mutated because of the internet and because of television. And theatre hasn’t caught up.” Greer’s stance is firm: “Theatre needs a revolution.”

According to Greer, it is not our audiences, but our writers that have become paralysed. Richard Bean recently protested against the sub-status of and creative constraints on new writers, blaming a lack of funding. Public money privileges older, established companies like the RSC, as modern playwrights are squashed into studio spaces and granted few resources.

Greer acknowledges the political problems of the industry, the powers that be who “need to be moved on” because “new writing has become an industry; it’s become calcified.” Far from the radical early years of the Royal Court, Greer now sees theatre as yet another patriarchal institution, in which the Artistic Director (“and it’s always a he”) acts as sole determiner of the drama on stage: “it becomes monarchical.”

It is a stagnant, stale industry that sees the same old audiences return – the mostly white, privileged middle classes. “Subsidised theatre has got to find ways in which it pushes the art form. It’s got to re-invent theatre, to open the doors.” The challenge, as Greer sees it, lies in reaching non-theatregoers, the people who, perhaps unconsciously, especially need the theatre in their lives, by creating theatre that is relevant and accessible to those new audiences. As fragmented modern communities, “we need the theatre more than we’ve ever needed it. But it’s gotta be modern, it’s gotta be swifter, it’s gotta be realer.”

“We’ve gotta find a way to break up the hegemony,” Greer asserts. With one production in the bag and future producing roles brewing, does she see herself as part of that hegemony, deconstructing it from within? “At the end of the day, you’ve gotta put your money where your mouth is, and if you want things to be different, you have to make them different.”

Refusing to become disillusioned by the inherent power of theatre, Greer still recognises the idealism of her venture: “I love the buzz of having to make theatre where you sink or swim by the audience and by the critics… You’re out there on the front line and the people tell you whether it’s any good or not.” It is the communal experience of theatre that she craves “that to me is what the power of theatre is”.

And if Road to Nirvana [at the King’s Head Theatre] sinks by its audience and critics? “Hey, I’m not outta the game.”

Rhona Foulis © 2006

Originally published on R&V on 09-05-06

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