Art Plus: A brush with the theatre

Some of Britain's top actors are helping a group of artists try their hand at drama. Emma Love reports
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These days the cross-over between art and drama is nothing new. You can see theatre in pubs, tunnels, boxing rings, on the streets and in art galleries. But what is slightly more unusual is when the scripts for the actors are written, not by playwrights as you might expect, but by artists instead. At London's Whitechapel Gallery later this month that's exactly what's set to happen as their annual Art Plus party – this year it's Art Plus Drama – kicks off with six one-off artist/actor pairings.

All the artists involved have a long track record of using language in their work, albeit in very different ways, and all were asked to come up with a short monologue or dialogue that could work well within a party context. The results, which will include sculptural artist Lynda Benglis's monologue being read by Maxine Peake, conceptual artist Lawrence Weiner's work interpreted by Sally Hawkins and artist Ryan Gander's text brought to life by Jonathan Pryce, are intriguing to say the least. Scripts have also been written by the performance artist Vito Acconci and husband-and-wife duo Ilya and Emilia Kabakov; Barbara Kruger's is the only dialogue, which will be performed in part by Tom Hollander.

"In art we've seen the emergence of writing, using language along the lines of scripts and live recitals, and we feel that now's the moment to put it together with the discipline of theatre and see what happens," explains Iwona Blaswick, director of the Whitechapel Gallery, who came up with the successful Art Plus concept six years ago after judging The Place Prize for best young choreographer and being blown away by Rafael Bonachela. "His dance was called E2 7SD, and was inspired by meeting an artist at the bar at the Whitechapel Gallery. I asked him to do the dance at the gallery and that was the first in the series, Art Plus Dance."

Since then there's been a couple of Art Plus Music and Art Plus Film events and one previous Art Plus Drama in 2007, where Samantha Morton read an intimate script about her body and living without mirrors in her house, written by Fiona Banner. On the same night, Martine McCutcheon was paired with manifesto man Mark Titchner, and Ed Ruscha wrote a list of things banned at airports, which was performed by Natalie Press and Greta Scacchi. "We wanted to create a bridge with other disciplines. One year we might do Art Plus Fashion, or Opera, but we're always looking for arts that are performance based. It's also about paying tribute to those other disciplines within the context of the gallery," continues Blaswick, whose underlying aim of the evening is to raise money for the gallery's important education programmes and artist residencies within schools.

As always with live events, part of the buzz of the evening comes from the improvisational, impromptu vibe which this year will lie largely in the trusted hands of director Rupert Goold. His task is to turn the monologues, which cover a spectrum of subjects – from the Kabakov's piece on the memories that can be found in overwhelming clutter to Weiner's thoughtful musings on our position with regards to the horizon and the sky – into spellbinding performances. "My brief is not to stage it as such, but to help the actors interpret the text," states Goold, likening his role to that of an acting coach. "The text needs to be very audible and exist as cleanly as possible. It's not going to be gagtastic; just the actors, the text and the stage, and hopefully by treating the work with integrity, that will inspire people."

For storyteller artist Ryan Gander, whose past work has encompassed writing a children's book, inventing a national holiday in a word and numerous crossword puzzles, the type of actor assigned to perform his piece was important. "I wanted someone whose voice, like a Sunday evening spent watching the Antiques Roadshow or Wallace & Gromit, say, is indented in your psyche," he says. "At first I wanted Jonathan Pryce reading his own obituary, but it didn't work as well as I thought it would." Instead, he's opted for a disjointed piece on the mechanics of acting and auditioning, where Pryce asks questions to an invisible person, perhaps on the telephone, but the audience can't hear the answers. "The audience is the silent person in a way. They fill in the gaps with their own interior monologues, so they become as involved as the actor."

In contrast, the audience will be party to both sides of conceptual American artist Barbara Kruger's dialogue. "I'm just interested in conversation and try to deal with how we are with one another through the difficulties and complexities of language. The piece zigzags between contempt, affection and verbal violence," says the artist, who has been writing scripts that involve dialogue for her videos for the last 12 years and believes that drama, film and music can all be considered forms of art. Of course, she's right. There are no cultural boundaries (or only those that we impose ourselves) and it makes things more experimental, more exciting for artists, especially those who work with language in a visual format, to broaden their practice. For some, it will be the first time that they've seen their work performed in such a way. "That's why the artists do it," reflects Blaswick. "They work with text all the time, but they want to see what these actors and actresses make of it. There's very little rehearsal time and no precedent."

Aside from the plays, there's also a dance element to the evening, with a short screening of An Italian Dream, a collaboration between party sponsor Tod's and the iconic Milan opera house Teatro alla Scala, along with a solo performance by their prima ballerina Sabrina Brazzo. Following the drama is an art auction with lots that include some of the artists' scripts, signed, alongside work by Dame Paula Rego, Julian Opie, Nan Goldin, Turner Prize nominee Angela de la Cruz and a rare drawing by Alice Neel. Finally, the evening will be rounded off with Jefferson Hack, artist-turned-DJ David Shrigley and the retro Lady Luck Club spinning the decks.

What's brilliant about the evening is that it's an imaginative example of various arts disciplines coming together and pooling their different creative talents to try something new. It's not just about the fact that drama is being performed outside of a theatre; by using artists to provide the text, it's taking the concept one step further. And, of course, it makes for a guaranteed talking point and a memorable, unexpected way to start a party. As the influential art scene figure and Jude Law's co-chair of the Art Plus events, Mollie Dent-Brocklehurst, puts it, "collaborations like this have got an edginess to them. There are always a few people on their Blackberries who don't get it, but so many parties are just ordinary. You'll never see these performances again; they're like mini art masterpieces."