Wednesday, 4 May 2011

Books and Dust

As the axe prepares to fall, I speak to Nicola Dellow, a postgraduate library student at UCL, about the cuts being made to library services.

Could you please sum-up the recent nationwide cuts made to libraries?

Public library services are being cut up and down the country as local councils attempt to keep to the budget cuts put in effect by the current government.

Do you feel these cuts are justified?

Of course not, I wouldn’t be a very good library school student if I did. I think it is completely tragic to be honest, as libraries have such a positive effect on a community. What I find most appalling is the cuts to outreach library programmes, such as mobile libraries and visits to the housebound. Many housebound users have little contact with the outside world and enjoy the chance to have a chat with a friendly member of staff and have books brought to them.

What are the long-term implications?

If public libraries shut, I do not think they will re-open in a better economic climate. I think this is why there have been so many campaigns to save libraries, initiated or endorsed by such a wide range of people. Education and literacy levels are likely to be affected and there is every chance that there will be a de-professionalisation of librarians working in the public sphere. 

Do libraries still have a useful role in today's culture given the ease of information access provided by the internet?

Of course. I think that both libraries and librarians have suffered in the past through stereotypes represented in the media. It is important to realise that libraries are not just about the physical space, but the services they can provide. The internet has not stopped parents taking their children to ‘rhyme-time’ at their local library, as a chance to learn and socialise with other children. It has not necessarily made people turn to online forums for book groups instead of attending them at the library to experience debate and the opportunity to meet new people. Public libraries essentially provide a democratic space for all members of the public.  

There is so much information available on the internet, but not all of it is relevant and search engines have certain limitations. At a library, it is likely that you will come into contact with someone who really knows about information retrieval, who can help you find relevant information from any number of sources.

Do the rise in e-book sales signal a natural evolution away from physical texts, or are such claims greatly exaggerated?

This is a tough one. The codex has had enduring popularity for centuries and it is a trusted form. I think that the e-book reader, like the codex, is a format for information retrieval and everyone has a personal preference about the ways in which they read. In a society where our working and private lives are increasingly exposed to computers, smartphones and other kinds of technology, then it is natural to want to carry 100 books around on an e-reader. However I think that the relatively slow uptake signals scepticism about storage capability and the chance of e-books reconfiguring as technology progresses, in the same way that early computer games cannot be played on today’s consoles. I certainly don’t think that in a decade’s time, book binders will be out of business.

In your opinion do such changes, both in terms of cuts to library services and the introduction of new technology, affect the types of books we read?

I don’t think changes to technology affect the types of books we read, but I do think they change the ways in which we read. I am not sure how it has the potential to affect the types of books we read, as e-books have the same diversity of genre as printed books.

I think that cuts to library services will really affect those who cannot afford to buy books and DVDs from internet sellers, or are unwilling to take a chance on ordering something that they cannot really browse first. In a public library, you can borrow material that you may not usually invest in and can read all sorts of books knowing that you can bring them back. I think that cuts to library resources will mean that people may be more careful about their reading choices because there is likely to be a monetary investment.

What do you make of Michael Goves' '50 book challenge'?

I think it is somewhat hypocritical to propose this figure when the government you are part of is essentially cutting the resources that will allow children access to reading material. This aim fails to account for any individual reading habits, such as pace. I think that Anthony Browne’s response in The Guardian has it spot on really; it is about the experience of reading, not the quest to complete a certain number of books within a year. 

Tuesday, 3 May 2011

Immersive Theatre

(Originally written for IdeasTap.)

Leaning in the dark, I touch the tip of my shoe against an empty bottle on the floor and calculate the series of events that would be set into motion if I rolled the glass under the feet of Banquo’s ghost.
I would never do it – I’d be an idiot if I did – but I’m still stood there with the bottle and eyeing up his legs...
Down the dark vaults of Clerkenwell House of Detention, Belt Up Theatre are putting on Macbeth, the cells of this 19th-century prison transformed into the mind of Shakespeare’s Scottish king.
Belt Up specialise in immersive, site-specific performance; immersive being a large umbrella-of-a-term that encompasses everything from one-on-one interaction to large-scale promenade theatre. This type of performance promises its audience something different from a traditional stage-play; the chance for direct bodily involvement in the action of the piece.
But being lowered into the bathwater is one thing; feeling like you’re able to splash around is another. Immersive theatre, more so than a platform for sensory play, has the potential to explore something else: the audience’s desire for involvement and a frustration of that desire.
As its popularity has risen, audiences have grown accustomed to the styles of immersive performance and purchase their ticket with certain sensory expectations. In her blog, playwright Sarah Grochola compares last year’s You Me Bum Bum Train, in which each audience member is made the protagonist in a range of disjointed scenes, to the act of shoe shopping.
This year’s One-on-One festival at the BAC catered for the personal tastes of its audience by setting up the event as a series of “menus”, with performances based on flavours such as “reflective” or “dreamy”. We consume this style of performance with eager bellies, but who serves us our dinner?
For a character, the opportunity to escape the traditional stage is a potential movement towards independence: autonomy. Now don’t get me wrong, the world is over-populated enough without an infinity of fictional stomachs to fill and I’m not saying we should give them the vote, but breaking from the walls of a traditional stage could, to some degree, present a chance for self-authorship.
And yet what tends to happen is the very opposite. Characters are often reduced to tableaux; figures that blend into the architecture of the site and serve only to compliment the aesthetic atmosphere of the piece. It would seem that, crushed under the boots of the newly empowered audience, characters run the risk of being reduced to facilitators for sensory experience.
The real power of immersive theatre is the conflict that crops up when there is a clash between audience and character; both parties detached from the traditional rule-book, both hungry for action, yet both unsure where the power lies.
The real question is how should emerging companies work with this uncertainty? It would be unfair to describe Belt Up’s Macbeth as tableaux, but at the same time, the unwillingness to sever the audience from Shakespeare’s text seems to be a missed opportunity.
Should audiences disrupt these narratives, and what happens when characters fight back? Maybe if I roll that bottle just slightly forward…