A comic bit actor who's now 'bigging it up' with a bit of byte

June 1, 2007

It is hard to imagine the grey-haired and besuited head of Brunel University's school of arts playing a flame-throwing punk psychopath, but Steve Dixon is there in The Comic Strip Presents ... archives, incinerating Emma Thompson before falling into a swimming pool.

"I almost drowned in that pool," he recalls. "After they had done the take I couldn't surface because of the weight of the gas canister on my back."

He was then a jobbing actor, standing in that day for Rik Mayall, a friend and fellow graduate - along with Ben Elton and Adrian Edmondson - of Manchester University.

After graduation in 1977, they all worked as stand-up comics at the original Comedy Store in London. Professor Dixon's friends went on to spearhead the anarchic, absurdist comedy movement of the 1980s. He remained in close contact with them throughout the decade, standing in for Mayall in the aforementioned Comic Strip episode and appearing in The Young Ones as a maniacal, fish-tank-eating character called Cash.

"It was an incredibly creative time in comedy and theatre," he says. "It hasn't been surpassed since. Comics were drawing inspiration from political ideas as a counter-reaction to the macho comedy of the past and as a backlash against Thatcher."

The 1980s were also a time of intense creativity for Professor Dixon. He took dozens of TV roles, including that of a cab driver in Coronation Street , and toured with experimental theatre companies. He worked with Steven Berkoff at the Donmar Warehouse, directed plays and began dabbling in film direction, making short movies using actor friends.

The first hint of his future career came in 1986, when he was awarded a Pounds 2.5 million grant for a film production and training project using the long-term unemployed as actors. "There was more money for community art at that time than ever before because of the drive to get people off the dole," he says. "The irony was that half the actors I worked with were graduates."

Professor Dixon directed them to create their own drama through improvisation. "I have always enjoyed community work. I believe that everyone can act and be creative."

Several more community projects followed, including an opera, before his first brush with higher education via a series for Granada TV on film-making.

"The series was produced in association with Salford University, and at the end the head of the School of Music, Media andPerformance asked me if I would like a job as a lecturer in media studies."

The offer came around the time of his third child's birth, so turning his back on the insecurity of life as a freelance was not too difficult. He still had the summers free to tour with his multimedia theatre company, The Chameleons Group.

In 2005, having risen to associate-head level at Salford, he joined Brunel University as head of its school of arts with instructions to "big it up" and, with £2.5 million from the university in his pocket, embarked on an aggressive recruitment drive.

Before the year was out, he had recruited seven "star" professors, including novelist Fay Weldon, "cyborg" performance artist Stelarc and David Lavery, an expert on TV shows such as The Sopranos and Lost , and set up nine new masters courses in fields such as video games.

Add to this successes such as the Cine-Excess Cult Film Conference this May (which, unusually for such ventures, made a profit) and it is clear that Professor Dixon has more than fulfilled his brief.

"We have two and a half times the numbers of PhD students we had when I arrived," he enthuses. "Applications to masters courses are up by 200 per cent."

Although with statements such as this he can sound like many other course directors, Professor Dixon is still very much the practical artiste and experimental performer.

As artistic director of The Chameleons Group, he put on a transatlantic play in 2005 in which audience members in Rhode Island entered a virtual world where they could hold hands and dance in real time with actors in Manchester. The theatrical backgrounds, which included a cliff scene and a traditional sitting room, were made with computer-game technology.

Art and theatre will become increasingly interactive, Professor Dixon predicts, with audiences acting as participants rather than passive viewers.

Boundaries between art and real life will break down, an idea personified by Stelarc, who recently implanted a prosthetic ear in his arm.

Technology, naturally, will be central to this evolution. Professor Dixon believes that robot performances - a natural progression from installations such as Chico McMurtrie's Amorphic Robot Works - will become mainstream, while virtual worlds such as Linden Lab's Second Life, in which people can interact and do business via their internet characters, will become more art-oriented.

In his 800-page book Digital Performance , published in February, Professor Dixon notes that today's digital performances have a precursor in the deus ex machina device of classical Greek tragedy, in which a crane was used to lower actors playing gods on to the stage, and in medieval pageant wagons.

He also draws parallels between contemporary performance and 20th-century avant-garde movements. In particular, he believes digital performance's historical lineage is inextricably linked with the technology-loving Futurist movement.

In a paper on e-Futurism, Professor Dixon explains how the Manifesto of Futurist Playwrights of 1911 declared that it was "necessary to introduce into theatre the feeling of the domination of the machine".

While today's digital performance artists lack the bravado, fiery rhetoric and grandiose claims of the Futurists, Professor Dixon believes they are on an "uncannily parallel path".

"And unlike their aesthetic ancestors they may ultimately realise the Futurist performance vision laid down, and largely forgotten, almost a century ago," he says.

melanie.newman@thes.co.uk

I GRADUATED FROM

Manchester University's drama department in 1977

MY FIRST JOB WAS

a professional panto, Dick Whittington in Wigan, when in my second year as an undergraduate

MY MAIN CHALLENGE IS

juggling many balls at the same time

WHAT I HATE MOST

being copied into the e-mail arguments of others

IN TEN YEARS

I hope to be as happy as I am now

MY FAVOURITE JOKE

What's yellow and goes into toilets? Piss

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