‘Let’s call it what it is: it’s queer’

An interview with Adriano Shaplin, the Riot Group

Adriano Shaplin thinks theatre is queer. Or at least it should be. Theatre for hundreds of years has been about trickery, fakery and ambiguity, he says, and that’s what it is. Shaplin is a founder member of the Riot Group, and writer of the group’s acclaimed plays. I talked to him at the Edinburgh Fringe in August [2005], where his latest show Switch Triptych, now at Soho Theatre in London, was gathering plaudits.

This queer stuff is a departure from what Shaplin said in a 2002 interview with Culture Wars, or perhaps more accurately an evolution. He said then that the Riot Group had been born of disdain for illusion and trickery, and that their use of sometimes violent physicality on stage, notably in that year’s Edinburgh Fringe First winning show Victory at the Dirt Palace, was an attempt to distinguish theatre from cinema or television by emphasising the presence of real bodies. Shaplin now argues that the distinction between fakery and realism is very imprecise, and he has embraced what he now describes as ‘a queer aesthetic’. But really this only reinforces his point about the importance of direct, queer theatricality as opposed to TV-style trickery pretending at naturalism.

‘We need to abandon naturalism. We need to react honestly to what has happened with cinema and TV,’ he says. ‘I’m a zealot about purely theatrical aesthetics.’ InSwitch Triptych, Shaplin has done away with scene change blackouts and the like, dismissing these as ‘TV conventions’. Instead, the approach is transparently theatrical. The set is more elaborate than in previous Riot Group shows, but it is anything but naturalistic. A flat, vertical cage-like structure serves as the premises of the Bell Atlantic telephone company, with three revolving chairs set up in front of old-fashioned socket switches, allowing for the Riot Group’s trademark straight line of bodies spitting their lines at the audience, as well as movement behind.

‘It’s annoying to me that naturalism in the theatre persists and is even the high water mark against which my work is judged, whether I connect with audiences emotionally.’ For Shaplin, the naturalistic style is intimately bound up with an almost coercive agenda of emotional manipulation. ‘I don’t want to be part of the sentimentality machine. Naturalistic theatre is leading. The question is always, “Were you emotionally vulnerable?” and, if not, it’s as if your citizenship is in question. I don’t like to be quizzed about my emotional response to things.’

Shaplin disapproves of theatre that ‘immerses its audience in a prescriptive emotional reality’ and instructs them in moral responses by unravelling characters to reveal ‘fatal flaws’ and so on. This is why, having once championed violence as a means of asserting theatre’s physicality, he is now wary of its use for cathartic effect. Shaplin is particularly disdainful of plays with pivotal scenes in which ‘everybody has knives held to their throats, everybody is being called a cunt’, and characters hysterically reveal the truth about themselves. ‘I’m drifting from the idea that pleasure can come from interiority,’ he explains. This remark points to the more general philosophical position underlying Shaplin’s approach to theatre.

Are we all unique individuals or are we products of our environment? No doubt it’s complicated, but when it comes to theatre at least, Shaplin is interested in ‘celebrating constructedness’ rather than trying to reveal individuality. Some critics have complained that Shaplin’s characters are no more than mouthpieces. Indeed, in the Riot Group’s last show Pugilist Specialist, we were presented with four characters, all soldiers, who each represented specific positions, and seemed to drive each other further into their respective stereotypes. Are Shaplin’s characters simply mouthpieces, then? ‘What the fuck are you?’ is his response, ‘We’re all mouthpieces.’ Shaplin rails against ‘the romantic idea that individuals emerge in their uniqueness’. In contrast to EM Forster, who valued ‘roundness’ in characters, an evolution over the course of a story, Shaplin is interested in how people get stuck in character. ‘The comedy of the characters is their lockedness,’ he explains of his own work. And what emerges from such characters is ‘not personality but excess’. It is theatre of frustration rather than fulfillment.

In fact, Shaplin’s unromantic view of character extends to his conception of theatre itself. He concedes that he used to think theatre could be pure, visceral, but now he has a more pragmatic understanding of its place in culture (suspecting the use of the word ‘visceral’ as another expression of naturalistic manipulativeness). ‘Now I realise the theatre is a place where people have to hold their bladders and sit in silence next to strangers,’ he says. Almost uniquely among artforms, theatre cannot be engaged privately, and Shaplin thinks this is important. Whereas people increasingly want to sit at home with a DVD they can stop and start at will (‘and not even have to put their pants on,’ Shaplin says more than once, perhaps offering an insight into his creative process), theatre is more demanding.

In his 2002 interview, Shaplin described theatre as ‘a tiny zone of autonomy’. ‘That’s very post-structuralist,’ he sniffs at his younger self. Now he prefers to emphasise the pants-on discipline required by theatre. ‘There is something liturgical about theatre.’ Like a church, indeed, ‘a theatre is often half full, and the people haven’t been in a while, but they’re there for some spiritual reason.’ In fact, during the group’s US tour with Pugilist Specialist, which was widely interpreted as a critique of the war on terror, Shaplin was repeatedly asked whether he was simply preaching to the choir (‘preaching to the choir, preaching to the choir…’ he mimics). ‘The choir needs a sermon,’ was his wearily defiant response. But bearing in mind Shaplin’s objection to morally leading theatre, this certainly does not mean the plays are ‘political’ in any conventional sense. Shaplin suggests that the ‘contemporary issues’ part of the group’s work has always been a disguise. Their work is really about gender, language and text. All the plays are politically ambiguous.

Switch Triptych is no exception. It is set in 1919 at the Bell Atlantic telephone company. Management is bringing in the Strowger automatic telephone exchange, putting an end to the jobs and livelihoods of the ‘hello girls’ who operate the old-fashioned exchange. The union wants to get the girls together for a political struggle, but the play’s central and most likeable character Lucille has other ideas. She doesn’t think of herself as a worker, much less a member of the working class. She is a mouthpiece for something very different.

‘There are two basic responses to capitalism,’ Shaplin explains, ‘solidarity, basically of a socialist kind, or corruption.’ Shaplin sees the latter as quintessentially American, and he is by no means entirely down on it. The group recently moved from San Francisco to New York, where Switch Triptych is set. ‘New York is willfully, gloriously, fabulously corrupt. And there’s something defiant and lovely and very Catholic about that,’ Shaplin says. Lucille is Italian, and often blurts out Italian curses and prayers: her Catholicism is not one of guilt and redemption, but of tradition, mystery, even baroque individuality. She drinks throughout the play. ‘Lucille’s demand for freedom is ravenous,’ Shaplin says, and this means she is fundamentally hostile to solidarity, which is personified in the play by June, an English Protestant who represents the union.

While the audience’s sympathy must be with the women, the play can hardly be a plea for the return of hello girls operating telephone exchanges. ‘It would be impossible to be nostalgic, me with my cell phone,’ Shaplin notes. Things have moved on; society has progressed. If the play does have a political message, however, it is that progress doesn’t just happen. It has authors, people who make decisions in particular contexts. Indeed, June is no luddite: she just demands progress on her own terms. ‘It’s only progress if it’s in my best interests,’ she insists, putting the protest in Protestant rationality. Progress doesn’t have interests of its own, after all. But the play isn’t about the emergence of class politics. Lucille’s irrational, even macho independence is more in keeping with the Riot Group’s queer aesthetic.

When June calls for a walk-out, the response of Phillippa, another worker, is more reminiscent of the MTV generation than anything else. She just doesn’t get it: ‘Walk out where? Outside?’ While Shaplin admits he did extensive research, and it shows, the play it is littered with deliberate anachronisms and period jokes. The point is not to educate the audience about the history of industrial relations, but to make theatre.

‘It’s austere,’ Shaplin says of the play, ‘it’s about artifice, ideas.’ Ideas? ‘I don’t understand why ideas can’t be visceral,’ he insists, continuing his deconstruction of that particular theatrical fetish. Dictionary definitions aside, he has a point. The theatrical and the intellectual come together with something like visceral effect in Shaplin’s writing. His characters/mouthpieces speak in a combination of rapidfire dialogue and long poetic soliliquies – not monologues, he insists. We’re back to Shaplin’s critique of the sentimentality machine. How often have you sat in a theatre listening to an actor launch into an extended lyrical reminiscence about his character’s childhood, tugging on the heartstrings with carefully crafted similes and symbolism? Shaplin’s soliliquies don’t pretend at naturalism, and they certainly don’t tug at the heartstrings: they are transparently poetic, artificial, ‘queer’ indeed.

For Shaplin, language and ideas do not necessarily mean literature, however. He is frustrated by the privileging of text over performance itself. ‘Developmental devised ensemble theatre can’t touch the literary world,’ he protests. ‘Even teenagers writing about middle aged alcoholics get more respect just because they have something in print. The fetish for text, especially in the UK, is extraordinary, and it blinds people’s response to different work.’ (Shaplin’s own texts have been performed by other groups, but he doesn’t consider other people’s productions to have much to do with him: ‘I feel pretty distanced from it.’)

What hope is there, then, for properly theatrical theatre, for Shaplin’s queer aesthetic? The Riot Group has built up quite a following, particularly at the Edinburgh Fringe, but increasingly further afield and even back in the US, where the group was unappreciated for a long time. But if new work of this kind is really to break through, Shaplin thinks innovators need help, and he argues that critics have a role to play. ‘Critics should not be afraid of pedagogy,’ he says. ‘They’re not the average punter.’ This is an important point. Given that this kind of work is rich in artifice and ambiguity, the notion that it ought to have an unmediated, ‘visceral’ effect on audiences is unrealistic. And if people are going to the theatre expecting the sort of emotive naturalistic experience that Shaplin disdains, they are going to be disappointed. It is incumbent on critics, then, to educate audiences in a different kind of aesthetic, and to do this by writing about and judging new work in its own terms.

‘I do still want to entertain people,’ Shaplin insists, and indeed there are plenty of jokes amid the austerity of Switch Triptych. (You can laugh – just don’t cry.) I ask him what he thinks of other new theatre that involves the audience directly in the action. ‘Audience participation is laughter and applause. That’s enough for me,’ Shaplin says austerely. ‘And they don’t realise how important it is.’

First published on Culture Wars.