Theatre Unbound

“Don’t pay any attention to what they write about you. Just measure it in inches.”
― Andy Warhol

Art is what you can get away with, as Andy Warhol once famously opined. By uttering those words in the latter half of the last century, Warhol staked out a controversial position that art was boundless. That it did not depend upon any traditional parameters of acceptability. And he was right, but he wasn’t the first artist to stake out that ground. As in almost every other domain of human achievement, art has progressed because artists through history have moved up that stake.

As well, theatre has been pushing the bounds of legitimacy since time out of mind. While most folks think of theatre as the proscenium arch, the sets, the costumes, the dialogue, and all the rest, the essence of theatre is really the interaction between a performer and an audience. All that other stuff is just gravy. The performer might be speaking or dancing or miming or juggling or painting. What matters is whether the performer can move the audience to a different space from the one they occupied when they first sat down. Real theatre succeeds at that.

Real theatre – traditional or alternative — enriches everyone, for all the reasons that story does. In fact, theatre is story, and if you strip the sets, costumes and multiple players, that’s all that will remain. Story in text plays out its drama for the reader while story in theatre plays out verbally and visually for the audience in the seats, both depending upon the willing suspension of disbelief until their points are made.

Recently I participated in a piece of alternative theatre in my home town: more like spoken word, the program featured three original works performed as individual bits. First came the storyteller, hearkening back to a re-imagined childhood; that was me. Next came a charming one-woman show, in which a single woman breathed life into a cast of dream characters through physical movement and language inflections. Finally, a husband and wife replayed a slightly exaggerated re-enactment of their online courtship, laptops and all. We had a great deal of fun and, collectively, we brought down the house in the tiny theatre.

It wasn’t the usual theatrical fare, but our little ad hoc troupe was convinced that we could engage 50 people every performance in stories conveyed through alternative structures. We were also convinced that we could engage 50 people each performance in stories that revolved around characters who were more than 50 years old. We were right on both counts. From my point of view, the surprise is not that we were right, but that others might not see that we were. That, somehow, because our stories didn’t play out with dialogue and sets and multiple players — with traditional theatrical trappings – our pieces were not real theatre. That one of the pieces was better suited to the printed page; that another would benefit by being fleshed out into a real play. I’ve heard about this perspective, although I do not understand it.

Years ago when I was at university, some enterprising English professors and students organized a theatre company around plays written and performed by members of the group. It was called Eavesdrop Theatre and was very successful, publishing a number of the pieces and traveling as far as New York and London to mount the most popular shows. Locally, Eavesdrop Theatre was well loved and well attended. As far as original theatre went, the playwright’s group was a bona fide source of pride.

At the same time, I had friends in other artsy disciplines — dance, film, fine arts — as well as other English students who wrote things like verse drama, but not traditional one-act plays. These friends had a voice, but nowhere to express it. So, a couple of us organized a much smaller venue, a series of performance opportunities that we called the Forum for Alternative Theatre, or FAT. We only mounted seven or eight productions, but I counted FAT as successful, too, if only because we brought a slightly different perspective to the local theatre scene. The artists responsible for the alternative work shone, and so did their contribution to the tiny theatrical world in my town.

This is all to say that, like art, theatre should be what we can get away with . . . what we can breathe life into and use to move audiences with.

Recently, I attended an artist’s lecture at LSU, but I think it was more than that. The artist — Walton Ford — presented slides of his huge watercolor and gouache pieces while riffing on the backstory of each. I was enthralled. He wove together bits of history, philosophy and culture, overlaid on stunningly beautiful pieces of art. Arriving late, I sat on the floor amid college students held rapt by the images and stories. All in all, this was something more than a lecture about art . . . it was art in the powerful tradition of breakout theatre.

Yoko Ono, Spalding Gray, Ann Magnuson, the actresses from “Love, Loss and What I Wore,” Walton Ford, and countless others all push the traditional theatrical envelope to the delight of many. Myself included. They and others offer up the essence of story and theatre in offbeat packaging. And they move us. They move us because story and theatre matter for lots of reasons. Howard Shalwitz, the Artistic Director of the Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, gave seven very good reasons why theatre matters at an event in October of 2011. His speech is reprinted below:

As someone who came from a family of doctors, started out pre-med in college, detoured to philosophy, then teaching, and finally to theatre — not only did my career choices slide steadily downhill from my mother’s perspective, but I was left with a moral conundrum: does my chosen profession, theatre, make a valuable contribution to the world when compared with the other professions I left behind? I guess this conundrum has stuck with me, because as recently as this past winter I made a list of seven reasons why theatre matters and I’d like to share them with you briefly tonight.

First, theatre does no harm. Theatre is one of those human activities that doesn’t really hurt anyone or anything (except for its carbon footprint — but let’s ignore that for now). While we’re engaged in making or attending theatre, or any of the arts for that matter, we are not engaged in war, persecution, crime, wife-beating, drinking, pornography, or any of the social or personal vices we could be engaged in instead. For this reason alone, the more time and energy we as a society devote to theatre and the arts, the better off we will be.

Second, theatre is a sophisticated expression of a basic human need — one might call it an instinct — to mimic, to project stories onto ourselves and others, and to create meaning through narrative and metaphor.. We see this instinct expressed in children when they act out real or imagined characters and events. We have evidence of theatre-like rituals in some of the oldest human societies, long before the foundations of Western theatre in Ancient Greece. So theatre matters, in essence, because we can’t help it. It’s part of what makes us human.

Third, theatre brings people together. For a performance to happen, anywhere from a hundred to a thousand or more people need to gather in one place for a couple of hours, and share together in witnessing and contemplating an event that may be beautiful, funny, moving, thought-provoking, or hopefully at least diverting. And in an age when most of our communication happens in front of a screen, I think that this gathering function of theatre is, in and of itself, something that matters.

Fourth, theatre models for us a kind of public discourse that lies at the heart of democratic life, and builds our skills for listening to different sides of a conversation or argument, and empathizing with the struggles of our fellow human beings whatever their views may be. When we watch a play, we learn what happens when conflicts don’t get resolved, and what happens when they do. We develop our faculty for imagining the outcomes of various choices we might make in our personal lives and our political lives. It’s not surprising that, in repressive societies, theatre has often been aligned with the movement toward openness and freedom. In South Africa theatre played a role in the struggle against apartheid; in Czechoslovakia, a playwright became the leader of a new democracy. If our own representatives and senators in Washington went to the theatre more often, I suspect we’d all be better off.

Fifth, both the making of theatre and attending of theatre contribute to education and literacy. Watching the characters talk back and forth in the theatre is tricky; it requires sharp attention, quick mental shifts, and nimble language skills. It teaches us about human motivation and psychology. In historical plays we get lessons in leadership and government. In contemporary plays, we learn about people and cultures in different parts or our own country or in other countries. Studies have shown that students who participate in theatre do better in school. Making plays together also draws kids out of their shells and helps them learn to socialize in a productive and healthy way.

Sixth, theatre as an industry contributes to our economy and plays a special role in the revitalization of neglected neighborhoods. We’ve seen this quite clearly in our own city. You can look at the role that the Studio Theatre played along the 14th Street corridor, or Shakespeare Theatre along Seventh Street, or Woolly in both these neighborhoods, or Gala Hispanic Theatre in Columbia Heights, the Atlas along H Street, or the new Arena Stage along the waterfront. As each of these theatres opened, new audiences started flooding in, new restaurants opened, jobs were created, the city improved the sidewalks, and neighborhoods that were once grim and forbidding became vibrant hubs of activity. And this pattern has been repeated in cities across the United States and around the world.

Finally, the seventh way that theatre matters — and this one applies to some kinds of theatre more than others — is that it influences the way we think and feel about our own lives and encourages us to take a hard look at ourselves, our values, and our behavior. The most vivid example of this I’ve ever experienced was during a post-show discussion at Woolly Mammoth when a woman said that one of our plays made her and her husband decide that they had a serious problem in their marriage and needed to go for counseling; and she was pleased to report that they were still together and much happier as a result. Now, I’ll admit, I don’t hear things like this every day. But speaking more generally isn’t this one of the things we go to the theatre for, to measure our own lives against the lives we see depicted on the stage, to imagine what it would be like if we had those lives instead? And isn’t it a very short step from there to saying, gee, maybe there’s something I should change about my own life? And it may have nothing to do with the message that the playwright wanted to deliver! Maybe the play is about a fierce battle over a family dinner that breaks the family apart over irreconcilable political divisions — but maybe you watch the play and say, gosh, wouldn’t it be nice to at least have a family dinner once in a while, and so you decide to plan one for next month.

So, those are my seven ways that theatre matters: it does no harm, expresses a basic human instinct, brings people together, models democratic discourse, contributes to education and literary, sparks economic revitalization, and influences how we think and feel about our own lives.

I’m with Howard on this. What’s your point of view?

 

The King’s Choice

I saw “The King’s Speech” with two girlfriends last year, one of whom is a speech pathologist. The three of us liked the film very much. Last night I watched “The King’s Speech” again and enjoyed it even more than I did the first time. Marge, my mom, watched it with me and it was the second time for her, as well. Before the movie started, she told me that she’d really liked the movie, but was unhappy with the way they’d portrayed Wallis Simpson, the American divorcee for whom King Edward had abdicated the English throne in 1936. Marge had been 11 years old at the time.

The first time I saw the film, I’d been most struck by the intricacies of the interpersonal relationship that developed between the Duke of York, Edward’s brother who became King George VI, and the commoner who was his speech therapist, as well as the impact that the emerging wireless technology had on the public perception. This time I was rather more struck with the political aspect: Europe poised on the brink of a second world war less than two decades after the end of the first while her fearful, battered people looked to their leaders for strength.

Watching it with Marge, whose memories of the glamorous Wallis Simpson clearly colored her perceptions, gave me an interesting perspective on the story. As the U.S. struggled to recover from the Great Depression and England limped along economically and politically, the story of a Baltimore socialite and the king who chose her over his throne captured the imaginations of both British subjects and American citizens. This second viewing of “The King’s Speech” also helped me come to terms with the very different points of view held by each.

To Americans still smarting from the economic constraints of the Great Depression, Wallis exemplified the upward mobility they could only dream about. She was raised by a single mother and attended good schools with the help of more landed relations. While attending those good schools, she befriended a few daughters of Baltimore society and she bootstrapped those connections toward the top. First she married a Navy man, then a multinational businessman, while traveling the world on her chic style and sparkling wit. By the time she met the Prince of Wales, she was ready to move up to the next rung.

Edward, for his part, was a somewhat dissolute dandy, by most accounts, caught up in a style that had outlived the reality of the times. He was perceived as a Nazi sympathizer, but it is unclear whether this was the case or whether he was just ridiculously out of touch with the stresses facing the people he had been born to lead. Although he looked good and swaggered effectively, he was not cut out to be king. In fact, one conspiracy theory held that Wallis Simpson was an American spy whose mission was to ensnare the future king to ensure his abdication, but that seems a bit far-fetched even to me.

At least one new film and two new books about the enigmatic couple will be released in 2012. The woman who famously opined that one could “never be too rich or too thin” seems to have captured imaginations once again, more than three-quarters of a century after she first captured headlines on both sides of the pond. Interestingly, I read while researching the backstory of the abdication that Edward believed Wallis had made the greater sacrifice, and I don’t quite know what that means.

In the end, what I take away from my second viewing of “The King’s Speech” and my mother’s indignation is another opportunity to appreciate that what any story means depends entirely upon one’s point of view.

Truth, Accuracy and Immigration

It was the ‘70s and my brother and I were wandering around in Greenwich Village, probably looking for some good pizza. We were bantering about our reading preferences; Jon read non-fiction, while I preferred fiction and the occasionally well written autobiography (which today might be called memoir). Jon said that fiction didn’t really carry much information because it wasn’t true. And that’s when things really got interesting because, of course, we then launched into a discussion of truth and accuracy, yada, yada, yada.

I held – and still hold – that fiction and stories are filled with truth. In fact, somewhere along the way I’ve read that fiction could be considered the “lies that tell the truth.” And I quite like that characterization. Because even if the path is not a direct one, good stories do lead to the truth. But, the truth about what? Not to put too fine a point on it, stories lead us to the truth about our lives, the lives of others, and the entire human condition. They are the purpose behind learning by example; the function behind reasoning by analogy. Just as we learn our very language by paying attention to the interactions between actions and words, we learn our humanity by paying attention to the interactions between entities within a narrative structure. That is, we learn how to react to particular circumstances, to empathize with other humans, and to live effectively in society through the examples handed down to us through stories, be they formal or informal.

This constituted an undeniable stretch, from Jon’s perspective, and maybe from the perspective of others, as well. However, I’m pretty firm in my belief on this one. Many things I know because of the stories I have heard and many more things I know because of the stories I heard once, but then forgot. For example, I have a particular perspective on the whole issue of federal immigration policy based on having read a whole lot of fiction about immigrants, including “My Antonia” (Willa Cather), “Mama’s Bank Account” (Kathryn Forbes), “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain” (Robert Olen Butler),  “The Mambo Kings Sing Songs of Love” (Oscar Hijuelo), “The Joy Luck Club” (Amy Tan), “Maggie: A Girl of the Streets” (Stephen Crane), “’Tis” (Frank McCourt), and “The House on Mango Street” (Sandra Cisneros). I am certain that those stories have colored my views on this issue.

By the same token, my views have also been colored by the immigrant stories passed down through my own family, as well as the stories my Aunt Gen told about serving as a social services counselor at Manzanar Relocation Center (Japanese internment camp in northern California). While the Japanese families detained at Manzanar were not immigrants in the strictest sense of the word, they were considered outsiders nonetheless. Our perception of these people as the “others” allowed the government to develop and implement policies — ostensibly as much for their own good as for the good of national security — that ultimately disenfranchised thousands of human beings, many of whom were actually legitimate U.S. citizens and second-generation Nissei.

At the same time, my mother was telling me stories, passed down from  her mother, about German immigrants through the Great Hall at Ellis Island in the first half of the last century. My grandmother worked for a time as an interpreter at Ellis Island and it was her job to explain the process to the  many Germans who filed through the Great Hall day after day. Many lost all of the belongings they’d managed to bring with them and a few even lost their names. Some of the stories were heartwarming, complete with teary reunions and a few were too sad to repeat. But, coming to America was what these people were about. Today, their descendants are our neighbors and our friends.

Stories such as these help us to know the faceless entities about whom we hear in terms of numbers and locations on the nightly news. We come to know them as who they really are: folks like us who have come here under varied circumstances, similar to many of our own ancestors. The fact that the stories from the 19th and 20th centuries reflect the same faces as do the 21st century versions reminds us that the people haven’t changed, even if official policy has. Decisions made without recourse to such exposure are not fully considered decisions. Platitudes lacking knowledge is really only foolishness.

Having heard the stories about Manzanar from my aunt, I grew intrigued and read more about the history of the Japanese relocation program and the camps in which these people were placed. At Manzanar alone, more than 10,000 people were “relocated” within a matter of months, resulting in huge logistical errors and affronts to human dignity. An undertaking of that scale created practical dilemmas never imagined in the rooms where men made the policy. Now imagine the task of relocating the more than 10 million “illegal aliens” said to currently reside in the United States. Such a policy sounds good, but stories from our past call this out as just so much political rhetoric rather than a real, feasible solution to a pressing social issue.