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?


2 thoughts on “Theatre Unbound

  1. I’m glad Marie shared this with AUI’s social media circle. It’s an interesting chance to engage.

    First, one of the things that comes standard in theatre is our uneasy relationship with critics. I’ve been on the other end of the critic-playwright relationship many times (and have had things written about my work that are far unkinder than anything included in the PG-50 review), and the accepted practice is always, “read, take what you want to take, ignore the rest.” A review is one person’s response to a show based on their experience in the theatre and their background outside of it. No review is objective. They are what they are. Engaging them often is a fruitless enterprise.

    But, you mention that you didn’t understand the arguments of the review. Well, let’s engage.

    First, theatre is a lot of things to a lot of people. But it’s not everything we place in a theatre in front of an audience. The show really isn’t alternative theatre — it was a fairly straightforward, traditional triple bill (a form that’s been around for decades) and none of the pieces really pushed hard at the edges of the form. Our intentions as artists isn’t theatre. And the philosophies we espouse aren’t theatre, either. The stories we tell between the lights up and lights down are theatre, and it either works for me as an audience member or it doesn’t.

    “Wet Dreams” didn’t work for me as theatre. It didn’t speak to me in the vocabulary of the theatre (and even the most experimental of plays still uses that vocabulary.) The writing, though very nice, wasn’t theatrical. The stories were rich in detail, but they weren’t necessarily dramatic. It was a great example of really nice storytelling, but storytelling isn’t theatre (especially when I’m expecting, as advertised, a triple bill of one-act plays). And this isn’t pretentiousness on my part. I know what it means to dig in and write for the stage. I’ve done it. A lot. Sometimes successfully, sometimes not. I’ve sat through my own shows and thought,”this doesn’t work as theatre.” It’s not putting theatre into a small box. It’s saying, “this experience didn’t do what other great nights of theatre have done for me — transport me to a place where actor, text and the visual world of the space combine to deliver a rich narrative that tells me something true about the human experience.” For me, that’s theatre. Simple as that. Without the bells and whistles of big ideas and manifestos. A rich narrative that I believe in that tells me something true about the human experience.

    And the second piece, though an entertaining solo one-act, has a narrative that would benefit from being fleshed out into a full-length play. It’s not a knock at all. In fact, it’s a tip of the hat to the author — I wanted to know more, I wanted to experience more, I wanted to feel more.

    I take theatre very seriously. It’s my vocation. It’s my passion. And I spend a lot of time laboring over my plays, making them better, getting feedback, putting them up in front of audiences, going back and working on them, making them better. I’m not just sitting in the dark, writing responses to a form I don’t practice every day myself. I care deeply about writing — particularly writing for the theatre — and I understand and respect the inevitable moment when a critic (and an audience) pass judgement on a work. It’s part of the deal. A crucial part. And knowing how to take negative criticism and turn it into better work is a hallmark of a confident writer.

    I have a musical opening next week at UL. Come see it. Write a review of it. Be as honest as you’d like. Even if you hate it, and spend the entire piece telling me how it could be done differently/better. Or even better, come find me at the show and tell in person what you thought, good or bad. I’ll be the guy at the back of the theatre, taking notes in my script, working on the show even though it’s up and in front of an audience. And I’ll probably have a lot of constructive criticism of my own work to share with you.

    • Great response, Cody! I appreciate the time and effort you put forth in formulating a thoughtful commentary on my blog entry. I had already planned to attend your upcoming musical – a medium I find enormously entertaining – and fully expect to enjoy it as much as I enjoyed your “William and Judith,” intrigued as I was by the novel point of view you presented in that piece. Your response is particularly welcome because I admire your work and, while we have met three times, we have never had the chance to engage on this level before. I also really appreciate the fact that you went to the trouble to review PG-50 in the first place. When I worked as a reviewer, I only bothered to write about those pieces that were worthy of analysis; the rest I thought were best served with silence. Fact is, I found your review to be preternaturally kind – especially to me, whom you caught on my weakest night.

      But, I blog about point of view, and the perspective I try to take assumes no right or wrong; point of view is, as with your point about reviews, objective. And your comment about storytelling being more suited to reading than performance aroused my differing point of view. Hence, this blog entry, which I also count successful in that it has succeeded in more fully engaging us in a real discussion of theatre – a topic we about which we both feel strongly – than have our few fleeting real-life encounters to date. For that, I am glad!

      I totally agree that “our intentions as artists isn’t theatre.” I believe that theatre lies in what folks in the seats take away with them, even if that take-away is in direct opposition to the intentions of the artist. I also agree that “the stories we tell between the lights up and lights down are theatre.” And that is where I found the take-away from your kind review to write about the power of theatre in this current blog entry. The idea that storytelling is not theatre is one of only two places, I believe, in which we disagree. Storytelling is, inarguably, the oldest form of theatre. We humans are hard wired to create meaning through the stories we hear, and we have been performing and reacting to verbal stories since we first acquired language. Some researchers contend that the narrative structure that evolved along with our species is responsible, at least in part, for the cognitive explosion among our ancient ancestors. Way before you and I and the Bard participated in what we call theatre today, our forebears found meaning and learned about their culture through the oral tradition and the original bards who carried stories across the land. It was hundreds of thousands of years later that folks finally began to write the stories down so they could be read, simply because writing and reading did not exist. Both reading and writing are artificial technologies, pale shadows of the oral tradition that helped to shape our very consciousness. To say that storytelling is not theatre is to deny the oral tradition to which we owe so very much.

      The second place in which we disagree regards “Harry.” While I respect your opinion more than you probably realize, I believe that the very absence of the dream characters strengthened the drama. By the time the protagonist awakens from her nap just before exiting the stage, we are gripped by a cognitive dissonance, forcing us to confront the fact that the only character we really know to exist is actually Harry, the heretofore make-believe man. The divide between dream world and waking world is strengthened, in my opinion, because we are left with a stronger sense of what-really-happened-here? than we would have been had all the characters been present in the flesh. (I am also a real sucker for those physical bits in repetition: the string of kisses, the doggy licks.) Bottom line, the one-person format worked for me.

      Finally, I want to thank you for your passion for theatre. Were there more folks who shared that passion, I believe the world would be a better place for all the reasons offered by Mr. Shalwitz from the Wooly Mammoth Theatre Company and more. Not the least of which being that we’d end up with a greater appreciation of theatre and the arts, in general, and in education, in particular. Shalwitz’s reason number five posits that theatre contributes to education and literacy. I couldn’t agree more, but would add some specifics. Theatre contributes to literacy because, any way you slice it, the ability to read depends on the oral language skills of the reader. Theatre strengthens oral language skills like nothing else I know. Once one learns how to read, going back to untangle some confusion or unknot some interpersonal relationship is easy: simply flip through the pages. Engaging in theatrical stories, one must keep up; there is no going back. It is also thus with storytelling. Our forbears developed the ability to think along multiple tracks by keeping track of threads in a story presented orally.

      Further, the artist who engaged his audience with the historical, philosophical and cultural back stories to his works helps us understand the complicated linkages between the various threads of our society. For my money, this is how you teach critical thinking. So, I am with you in your passion for the theatre. The basis for my passion in that domain, though, is firmly rooted in the power of story, in all its many forms.

      Once again, thanks for your great response. Now I’ll have to go friend you on Facebook to let you know that I’ve responded in the event you’d like to continue our engagement. (Ain’t technology grand?)

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