A brief post today, a further elaboration on some of the ideas in You Were My Friend (for which tickets are available). It’s relatively spoiler-free, but even these spoilers won’t really be such, because all I’m going to describe of them is that they exist, not precisely how or why the scenes shift as they do.
Throughout, You Were My Friend is what I’d call a social realist piece of theatre. I mean it’s social realist in the sense that I learned about it from Phil Sandifer, after whose lesson on the landmark BBC tv-movie Cathy Come Home, I realized applied to a lot of my favourite old movies: Five Easy Pieces, MASH, The Passenger. My own production is deeply political, and finds its profundity in the small scales. It’s about two women living in an apartment overlooking Kensington. All scenes but one take place in that single apartment.
The pressures that drive them throughout the narrative are utterly ordinary, and exactly what drives most of us to distraction. They have hostile or passive-aggressive relationships with their families. They experience crises of confidence as their careers face roadblocks or stall out completely. They undergo the pressure of having to pay the same or rising bills at a time when they have less and less money.
That’s what social realism is about. In Phil’s words from his Cathy Come Home post in 2011, “The point of social realism is simple. It’s out and out politicized art. You do social realism because you want to get people to change something about the way they live their lives.” Social realist storytelling conventions let us experience a person’s life in such a more intense way than we usually do, because it’s packed into, in the case of You Were My Friend, only about 80 minutes.
That intensity of a sympathetic example of someone whose life circumstances are very different from yours can achieve the political purpose of helping you understand such a person better than you otherwise could. Some reactions to learning that a person is stuck in a crap job is, “Well, they should get a better job!” But that idea doesn’t take seriously the idea that you can’t.
As well, when a person is lulled into an attitude of accepting a realistic portrayal of life on stage, seeing that shift into a hyper-real mode is especially jarring, unsettling. This is what we spent a lot of time on during the technical rehearsal tonight: getting the transition from the social realist mode of lighting and on-stage movement to a more meta-fictional dreamscape that directly involves the audience in the characters’ existences. It’s a step beyond the social realism that encourages sympathy, and into a mode of theatrical storytelling that actually takes the audience directly into the experience of the characters.