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Matt Trueman: Is experimental theatre in decline?

The trail-blazers of the last decade have now become the norm - so a new wave of theatremakers are pushing in different directions

A scene from Breach Theatre's The Beanfield, a blend of theatrical forms
© Alex Powell

Ten or so years ago, experimental theatre was everywhere. Punchdrunk were the posterboys, pushing immersive theatre into new ground. You Me Bum Bum Train was finding its feet. One-on-one theatre was beginning to bloom and artists were playing around with iPods and radio headsets and total darkness. Game theatre was flickering into life. Pop-up culture meant new spaces and sites. The Shunt Vaults were a seeding ground for new forms. SPILL Festival had just started out. Battersea Arts Centre was "inventing the future of theatre."

Sometimes it feels like all that experimental energy has faded. Back then, funding was flush and there was this huge energy about theatre; a desire to twist it, spin it, bop it; to find new shapes and sizes, new sites for performance, new models of spectatorship and new methods of making. Everything was up for grabs. Anything could be made into theatre and theatre could be made of anything: flashmobs, sports matches, fancy dress parties, pub quizzes, gameshows.

Today, that energy has been channelled elsewhere. You see the same array of forms - site-specific, immersive, interactive - but that expansionist drive, the will to experiment and discover, doesn't feel so urgent. There are still genuine experiments going on, of course: Andy Field brought Luther & Bockelson to Forest Fringe this year, taking DIY performance to a whole new level, albeit without entirely succeeding, and Chris Goode is pushing a new model of ensemble practice with Ponyboy Curtis. However, such leaps into the unknown seem rarer than they used to be.

Instead, the state of the world has pushed content - particularly political content - to the forefront. Funding cuts have made experimentation for experimentation's sake seem like a luxury, and it's harder to justify freewheeling formal risks with no guarantees. Risk, today, often means saying something difficult or against the grain. Or it means stripping back: seeing how little stagecraft one can get away with, as in Robert Icke's Oresteia or Ivo van Hove's View From the Bridge. Or it means structural innovation - pushing at the frameworks by which theatre is made in this country. (That was the most radical thing about the Lyric Hammersmith's Secret Theatre season.) In an age of austerity, with real people really struggling, theatre has taken on a utilitarian function too: with artists opening spaces, involving communities, offering another kind of care.

'What was novel and daring five or ten years ago has become standard practice'

However, there's another way of looking at this - namely, that artists and audiences have grown accustomed to a wide range of theatrical forms and approaches. What was novel and daring five or ten years ago has become standard practice. Risks have become surefire and theatremakers have an array of workable options with which to communicate to an audience successfully. In other words, the formal experiments - or at least some of them - have worked.

More than that, a new kind of fusion theatre is emerging - particularly in the work of young companies. In Some People Talk About Violence, for example, Barrel Organ slammed a piece of new writing with a series of techniques drawn from devised theatre. Actors enacted a drama, written in character-led monologues, then played a series of games as themselves: stuffing themselves with crackers, humiliating one another, dancing to the point of exhaustion. Likewise, Breach Theatre's The Beanfield encompassed verbatim theatre techniques, documentary films, performative re-enactment and a fictional, first-person account of a summer solstice that could have sat as new writing in its own right.

For a long while, new writing and devised theatre were treated as adversaries. In some quarters, they still are. Michael Billington and playwright David Edgar have both spoken about the "threat" collaborative work poses to the lone playwright. However, Barrel Organ and Breach proved that the two traditions can co-exist and, more than that, co-operate. It's as if these young theatremakers have encountered both traditions in their training and cherry-picked from both.

What it does is allow process to sit alongside a play. When Breach play a recording of a protest on their university campus being aggressively disbanded, it changes their relationship to police violence in 1985. Perhaps it gives them a right to make a show about it at all. The Stonehenge story gives their historical enquiry a present-tense relevance. Barrel Organ, meanwhile, implicate themselves in their fiction with their cruel onstage games, acknowledging their own complicity in the world they're critiquing.

Simon McBurney does something similar in The Encounter: sitting a first-person story, that of the American photojournalist Loren McIntrye, with an account of his own research process. One moment we're in the Amazon rainforest with McIntyre, the next we're in McBurney's flat as he reads around the subject. What's more, he's using techniques associated with off-site work - namely radio headphones and binaural technology - in a theatrical setting. Chris Goode, too, inserted himself, as writer, into his sprawling panoramic storytelling play Men In the Cities. Chris Thorpe and Jon Spooner combined theatrical writing as part of a cabaret in Am I Dead Yet?; Daniel Bye fused storytelling with a performance lecture in Going Viral.

This is exciting. It suggests a shift in theatre, as different forms and techniques, different traditions and practices, slam together. What's remarkable - and surprising - is that those different approaches can sit together on a single stage in a single performance. With audiences able to distinguish between different modes of watching, you can open up a sort of channel-hopping. The result is a kind of fusion theatre, and the possibilities are endless. Experimental theatre is alive and well.

Read more from Matt Trueman