To celebrate our 50th anniversary this year, we are exploring some big questions crucial to our essence. This season, we focus our attention to what it means to be ‘contemporary’. Is it a label? Is it definable? Or is it something else altogether?
To start this season, our Artistic Director Eddie Nixon sat down with American-British novelist, critic, broadcaster, political activist and Patron of The Place, Bonnie Greer, for a lively discussion about the usefulness of art, reading Othello in Brixton and the space where ideas and transmission collide.
Eddie: Bonnie, you have been writing plays and expressing yourself through art since you were nine. How do you think we know what’s ‘contemporary’?
Bonnie: Technically on one level, we can’t because you can’t know your own time. But practically, there’s something to be said about ‘contemporary experiences.’ I was really lucky to go to New York in 1978, during the beginning of the whole East Village art scene and I got to see Merce Cunningham dance, I got to see Trisha Brown dance, Wuppertal Dance Theatre, Urban Bush Women, Robert Wilson when he made theatre, I saw Einstein On The Beach… so I’m this kid in the audience and I remember looking at Pina Bausch, and it said something to me that I could use at that moment in my life. Only a great artist can do that. If you’re able to receive something and you can use it, that’s contemporaneous, of the time, of the moment – that’s what it all means.
Eddie: What you say about usefulness is interesting. There is something about the personal, the ‘I’ of what is contemporary - is it in the maker or the receiver? For example, you are on the lower East Side, a young woman from Chicago, an artist - your sense of receptiveness is very particular and someone else might have been in that room at that moment not receiving with those eyes and I think that dynamic is interesting.
“If you’re able to receive something and you can use it, that’s contemporaneous”
If we say it’s all about what resonates with you personally in the here and now, to me that implies that ‘contemporary’ is not something you can put your finger on. It has to be contextualised by the individual and the experience they bring into the room.
Bonnie: Absolutely! In my case, that context was that I grew up in a deeply African American community with all the tropes, the church, all those things and I think there was a part of me that wanted to get away from that. I think the rejection of all those labels is what was contemporary for me. I started reading and exploring German theatre, British theatre, French theatre, I went to John Cage concerts… I was the only black person in Merce Cunningham’s audience, and I asked myself, ‘what am I doing in this audience?’ It wasn’t Alvin Ailey, it wasn’t anybody reaching out specifically to me. But it was useful to me.
The challenge for education is to make the human being receptive to what’s useful to them. You can’t typecast young people. I think you should do the opposite. I love the young generation - they’re gonna save us!
“…the most contemporary ideas go just a little bit further, they have a speculative ‘what if…’
Eddie: I was in Edinburgh recently and I saw the show Burgerz by Travis Alabanza, a young trans writer. They were the victim of abuse on the street, somebody threw a burger at them, and they made a superb theatre piece about this. It was processing the world, the present, the here and now. Within it, there was history about how society relates to trans people. The interesting things for me, however, was although the play is a commentary on the present, it felt like a moment in the future. It’s just out of reach. A provocation is being made, a suggestion that is an almost utopian moment and I’m really interested in that. It reminds me of the TV show Blackmirror, where the things portraited feel just beyond this moment in time. They’re clearly an imagined future but it feels like it’s only seconds away, it could be tomorrow, and I like this idea. For me, the most contemporary ideas go just a little bit further, they have a speculative ‘what if…’
Bonnie: I developed a programme where I teach Shakespeare as a literacy tool. But I never tell my pupils that it’s Shakespeare until the end. I decided to teach a class of Eritrean refugees in Brixton a scene from Othello. So we talked about what it’s like living in London and then I gave them the soliloquy, I said let’s read it out loud and think about everything we talked about, put it all in there and do the speech – and it was gold! They just got it. I think that’s where contemporary creativity happens, in that juncture, that alchemy.
Eddie: Othello, in that very specific context, was useful to them. Shakespeare is by definition not a contemporary artist but in that moment he is.
“I want to encourage young artists to just take everything, take it and see what you can make out of it that’s yours!”
Bonnie: To me, he is absolutely a contemporary artist, that’s why he is still with us. What I like to do a lot in theatre is exploring the classics but putting them in contemporary settings. I’m doing Hedda Gabler again because most people who translated Hedda Gabler are male and they’re trying to figure out why she does what she does - is she pregnant, is she just nuts? And I’m thinking ‘no, why can’t you just explore a character who has no rational purpose for what she does?’ I think male artists are sometimes afraid of a woman who has no purpose. She’s just there. So I told my idea to some actors I wanted to work with and they said “Oh, I don’t want to work with old things anymore, I don’t want Shakespeare and Ibsen” And I said, “I’m not working with Shakespeare and Ibsen, I’m working with me!”.
I am investigating, as an African American woman from South Side Chicago – why am I into Ibsen? What is he saying to me? That is fascinating and I want to encourage young artists to do that, just take everything, take it and see what you can make out of it that’s yours!
“…it depends on how daring you want to be.”
Eddie: Here is another question: Is contemporary art different from other contemporary ideas? Because new ideas emerge in science or education or politics as well.
Bonnie: I think in all these fields, it depends on how daring you want to be. If you want to be a contemporary politician, you probably won’t be in a political party, you would reject that system. And this kind of vagabond existence is scary. It does make you a loner, it makes you invisible in a way. If you want to be in the scene, if you want to have a career, if you want to be visible, there is a level of conformity or recognisability that you have to cultivate, otherwise no one will see you.
Eddie: Yes, there’s something about tiptoeing the line of being an outsider and being in the centre. The tendency with contemporary thinking is to make you an outsider with that desire to keep pushing towards the edge, and then the mainstream or the economics of living pull you towards the middle. There’s a kind of vibration there.
“I believe that the business of people in culture is to create mechanisms to make us see.”
Bonnie: You can’t get a gold medal from the Royal Academy and be on the outside. Just think, what if there’s a woman in a garage outside of Stratham, who is the most amazing creator of dance you could ever imagine – but you’ll never find her because she’s not visible. So the question is, do you become a visibility seeker? I believe that the business of people in culture is to do that, to seek out or create mechanisms to make us see.
Eddie: Agreed, a really contemporary idea or action has to achieve that visibility. But it’s not just the idea, it’s also how it will find its way into the world! An artist not only has to recognize the instinct but also know how to transmit it to everyone. That’s what Travis Alabanza did. It’s not the person they are that makes it a contemporary idea, it’s not the event, it’s the fact that they’re able to know how to speak to other people about it…
Bonnie: …to have the tools, the technique, the backup, and the right people, so you can recreate that moment in the audience...
Eddie: …and in that moment we all become complicit in that memory and that’s the contemporary bit. That’s when the genius, the magic happens.
Bonnie Greer is an American-British playwright, novelist, critic and broadcaster. Greer was born on the West Side of Chicago and began writing plays at the age of nine, later studying theatre in Chicago under David Mamet's supervision at the Actors Studio in New York. Living in Manhattan's West Village in the late 1970s and early 1980s, she moved to Britain in 1986 and acquired British citizenship in 1997. She has appeared as a panellist on television programmes such as Newsnight Review and Question Time and has served on the boards of several leading arts organisations. She is Vice President of the Shaw Society and Chancellor of Kingston University. She has worked mainly in theatre with women and ethnic minorities, and is a member of the Arts Emergency Service, a British charity working with 16- to 19-year-olds in further education from diverse backgrounds. Greer was appointed Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in the 2010 Birthday Honours for services to the Arts.