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Writing and live art

Review of John Deeney's Writing Live: An Investigation of the Relationship Between Writing and Live Art by Aleks Sierz

Conceived in 1994 to investigate the relationship between playwriting and live art, Writing Live is a report on a project set up by the New Playwrights Trust (now WriterNet). As John Deeney says in his introduction, this book seeks to inform practitioners and theorists about 'how and why the marriages between new writing and live art have occurred, and how some of those marriages are lived'.

In part one, Ben Payne looks at definitions of new writing and its uneasy relationship with live art since 1956. He examines the role of the writer, shows how battles over the canon of contemporary dramatists 'are as much political as aesthetic', and gives a neat account of the various strategies adopted by performers such as Tim Etchells, Rose English, Claire Dowie, Nigel Charnock, Deborah Levy and Lloyd Newson. With conventional notions of playwrighting in flux, he asks, can a devised piece by one performance group be put on by another company?

Of particular interest is the institutional context - the role of the ICA, Shinkansen and Arts Catalyst - and the question of funding work which doesn't fit neatly into the categories of theatre, music, dance, mime installation or sculpture. When money is short, problems of definition become more acute. Payne finishes not with a manifesto, but by asking how theatre can 'speak the language of our own times'?

In part two, Ruth Ben-Tovim offers three case studies which critically examine the role, status and practice of the writer and written text in the field of live art: Moti Roti's Maa, louder than words' the counting of years and Gary Carter's Muster. In each case, she underlines the importance of venue and audience, and shows how practical collaboration questioned accepted definitions of writer, director and performer.

Clearly written, attractively produced and provocative, this is essential documentation for anyone interested in theatre which travels beyond know landmarks. Both students and practitioners will be grateful for this map - unfinished, sketchy but full of possibilities - of a territory which needs further exploration.

© An earlier version of this review appeared in New Theatre Quarterly 59, August 1999: p 285

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See also: new writing bibliography

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