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?