I Used to Guard the Queen
Not a lot of people know that! But it’s true…when I was an art student, I had a summer job working in Madame Tussauds as a guard, and often my task was to stand next to the raised dias on which stood effigies of the royal family, and to strictly enforce the rule that no one was allowed to get close to them and especially not take photos. I seem to recall no photos were allowed anywhere in the building at that time. As a republican I can’t say I cared in principle whether the tourists rearranged the models into compromising positions and stole the jewelry, but you know, a job’s a job at that age. I preferred it when the daily rota put me in the Chamber of Horrors where plenty of fun could be had as tourists prodded me to see if I was real or a waxwork. People still do that now from time to time. Should I be concerned? Now the entire attraction has changed, with open access to all the exhibits throughout the building, with the entire emphasis on photo opportunity.
Having just returned from performing at the Beverley Puppet Festival it occurs to me that I have no photos of the weekend. I experienced the event and the place without the urge to visually record everything for….for what and for who? The memories will be strong, without the need of photos to trigger them. The experience was at once intense (me and Su performing two shows then watching five) and sociably relaxed, meeting with folks involved in the puppet bubble who we rarely encounter during the rest of the year.
In this age of recording trivia and ephemera and instantly placing it on the social networks to become tomorrows virtual fish and chip wrappers, it was refreshing to be reminded at the start of each show that no photos were allowed, and also that we should all turn off mobile phones…. Could theatre be one of the last places where we are stripped of devices and have our senses fully involved? Or, in order for it to survive will it have to do the equivalent of commercial tourist attractions like Madame Tussauds waxworks, and become a place which gives endless photo opportunities? There is a serious point here, because all forms of theatre struggle to get audiences. I’m hardly the first to point out the strangeness of the convention that has evolved of buying a ticket to sit in a large room full of strangers in order to sit for an extended period staring at a stage with people pretending to be other people, or indeed puppeteers helping objects pretend to have inner energy. There has to be a strong reason to decide to do that, when there is such a rich choice of new media alternatives that are often cheaper and more interesting.
The rise of stand-up comedy is hardly surprising. It offers the venue good value, especially when the comic is well-known and brings in a full house. Laughter binds the audience into a social whole, and the event is usually theatrically edgy in the sense of it being very live and happening. And dangerous too as to whether the comic will deal with improvised banter and situations, or indeed be funny! Often the performer will deal with relevant political or social dilemmas, however big or small, in a way which the audience will recognise and relate to them.
So at the Beverley festival I was particularly pleased to see “The Great Puppet Horn” performance in which two performers bombarded the audience with throwaway visuals and disparate storylines and sketches which came together in the end in a suitably mad but satisfying way which pricked the boils of concerns about contemporary life. I wonder if the “p” word will work against them though. What they did was not part of the man in the street’s definition of “puppet”, so they might be better off ditching the word and finding something more intriguing. Trying to think more positively though………many people have tried reclaiming the word for adult audiences with varying limited success so maybe this will be the breakthrough moment.
Will have to stop now as I’ve just heard that the Queen is going to end her Jubilee tour with a visit to the New Forest Show, just up the road from us. Who will guard her from the ponies?I’m sure there’s a job opportunity waiting for me. Or certainly a photo opportunity.