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Sunday, June 19, 2011

The Sunday Feature, June 19, 2011: Jacob Wren on theatre and risk

The world which looks to us like a bad film.
Some thoughts on theatre, risk and cowardice.
by Jacob Wren

When you attend a bad movie you only feel like you’ve seen a bad movie. When you attend bad theatre you feel like you are witnessing the complete breakdown of human possibility.     – John Bourgeois 

There is a comparison I have always used, and in fact continue to use quite frequently, when speaking about the dilemma of contemporary theatre (and here I am using the word ‘contemporary’ to connote that which is happening now.)  It is a historical comparison between, on the one hand, how painting responded to the growing prominence of photography and, on the other, how theatre responded to a similar phenomena with regards to cinema. 

As you of course already know, painting responded to the growing popularity of photography with what I might refer to as a series of ‘productive crises’. Sent into turmoil by the fact that photography could achieve a more instantaneous and effective verisimilitude than was technically possible using paint, painting very quickly developed a series of inventive and striking modernist breaks: impressionism, cubism, color field painting, surrealism, abstract expressionism, pop art, etc.  These movements continue to have an enormous, if somewhat confused, impact on contemporary art and, more to the point, to be a painter today in the purely historical mode, to be a painter as if photography never happened and the history of painting remains unbroken is, for the most part, considered ridiculous. is today not considered particularly ridiculous to be a contemporary theatre practitioner who, for example, specializes in directing Shakespeare while...

It is possibly an understatement to say that theatre did not respond to the rise of cinema with nearly the same inventiveness or fervor. Of course there was Beckett and Brecht but neither can really be said to have been especially preoccupied with the fact that film had already replaced so many of the social and artistic aspects that were once the sole providence of theatre. More to the point, it is today not considered particularly ridiculous to be a contemporary theatre practitioner who, for example, specializes in directing Shakespeare while, in contemporary art, a painter who has a similar relationship with Vermeer would not be taken very seriously. (One could of course easily imagine an exception to this example but, exceptions aside, I believe the point still holds.)

Earlier this year I was once again sketching out this (admittedly rather vague, not particularly well researched) historical parallel when the person I was speaking with asked me just exactly why I thought theatre had not responded to the invention of cinema with a bit more fight. Off the top of my head I mentioned that early cinema was in black and white and, more to the point, silent. Since theatre featured colour and dialog, perhaps at the time cinema seemed far enough away to pose no real threat. And then perhaps the development of ‘talkies’ and ‘technicolour’ crept up on theatre gradually enough so there was no real shock. The person I was speaking with said that it was a bit like the frog that was boiled slowly as opposed to the frog that was dropped into boiling water (and therefore immediately jumped out again.)

Theatre is the frog that has slowly boiled. The gradual change has more or less killed it...

And this seems like a good enough analogy for the time being. Painting is the frog dropped into boiling water. The sudden jolt shocked it towards bold new directions. Theatre is the frog that has slowly boiled. The gradual change has more or less killed it, since, within a larger social context, it has now been supplanted by cinema and television (which in turn have been replaced by video games and the internet) to a startling degree. 

In fact, I would even go so far as to say that cinema is the contemporary version of theatre. Therefore, by it’s very nature, theatre is the old-fashioned version theatre. For theatre, against all odds and historical reality, to try to become contemporary is in and of itself a risk insofar as it is a kind of leap into the impossible. Theatre can never be contemporary because it has already, over a hundred years ago, been replaced by something more contemporary and the desire to be modern is always also a desire to attach oneself to the most up-to-date things. 

Nonetheless, I have dedicated myself to bringing the fundamental paradox of a ‘contemporary theatre’, a theatre that speaks to the here and now, a little bit closer to reality. To ‘unboil’ the water and bring the dead frog back to life. To see cinema and television as the shock to theatre’s system that it is, and should have always been, and discover what strange and startling innovations such a realization might provoke. And I am, of course, certainly not alone in this pursuit. does one actually deal with the audience.

When thinking of theatre in direct relationship to cinema one very quickly makes the obvious observation: one of the main strengths of theatre is that (unlike film, television, the internet, etc.) the audience and performers are all in the same room together and therefore it is possible to create an extremely intimate and direct relationship between them. This is the risk I will attempt to unpack a little bit in the paragraphs that follow: how does one actually deal with the audience. Because, while it is easy enough to say that in theatre you have the audience right there in front of you and isn’t that great: how exactly it might be possible to effectively pursue this very direct and personal situation is by no means obvious or clear.

Theatre shares with our supposedly real lives this very sense of ineffectiveness, pathos and unreality.

More precisely, what might it mean to genuinely deal with the audience in a manner that feels contemporary: in the context of a contemporary world that is increasingly fragmented, in which people often seem more comfortable dealing with ATM machines than with actual human bank tellers, and on a daily basis are more likely to communicate via text messages and email than through anything resembling an intimate or direct encounter. Deleuze writes: “The modern fact is that we no longer believe in this world. We do not even believe in the events that happen to us, love, death, as if they only half concerned us. It is not we who make cinema; it is the world which looks to us like a bad film.” In such a provocation I believe he is evoking a situation in which real life human connections seem sadly false in comparison to the overblown ‘truth’ of mediatized representations. This is also of course the situation of contemporary theatre. That it very simply seems ‘false’, feels less real, than what we are used to seeing in the cinema or watching on television. Theatre shares with our supposedly real lives this very sense of ineffectiveness, pathos and unreality. Or, to put it another way, theatre also often looks to us like a ‘bad film.’

I do not for a moment want to suggest that it is possible for theatre to ever heal this wound (neither within our lives nor within theatre itself) but it does have the potential to speak towards the problem in a way that cinema cannot. The discomfort of watching a theatre show is always also the discomfort of being in a room with other people, not just with one’s fellow audience members but also with the performers. The embarrassment one feels towards them, how in some sense one always puts oneself in their place and imagines oneself up there on stage, doing some ridiculous thing in front of a room full of judgmental and critical individuals. It is a situation of potential humiliation and therefore also a situation that inspires a very deep-seated and near-visceral fear.

...cowardice in theatre is just the other face of the fact that one is being watched by a room full of strangers...

It is my feeling that cowardice among theatre makers always, at least partially, emanates from this fear (and the sublimated denial of this fear.) The audience is right there in front of you, watching, judging, ready to blame or praise with a free hand. It costs them nothing to say the show is bad. The performer’s hard work and commitment can be instantly devalued and for many in the audience, just a few days later, they won’t even remember having done so. All of this is in the room with you every time you perform. I therefore don’t feel it is so much of an exaggeration to say that performance is a situation of fear: the fear of being exposed, the fear of having to genuinely deal with the audience, and that cowardice in theatre is just the other face of the fact that one is being watched by a room full of strangers, that in some very real sense you are vulnerable in front of them. To deny the visceral reality of this situation, and the very real discomfort inherent within it, is also to deny theatre’s contemporary potential.

Of course, on the most literal level we might say that this fear is really only the fear of not pleasing the audience, or of not being understood (and therefore not being accepted) by them. However, on a more subtle and counter-intuitive level I believe it is also a fear of being understood too much, of connecting with them too directly and intimately, a connection that one senses is false (and even empty) because when the show is over all connection is severed as the performers and audience go their separate ways. Still, whatever will or will not happen when the show is over, for the length of the performance the situation is clear: the audience is very much right there in front of you and that fact cannot be denied without subtly corrupting the entire process. 

The more one tries to deal with this fundamental relationship between performer and audience the more one realizes the degree to which theatre is a situation one can never completely control. For many theatre practitioners this very lack of complete control makes the desire to control the performance, and to control the audience reaction, all that much more overblown and desperate. It goes without saying that fear and control are deeply connected. We try to control the things we are afraid of so they will not hurt us. Still, even in the most conventional theatre, to control things too much is to kill the very aspects that make theatre different from cinema, the very aspects that make theatre still relevant in our desperately over-mediatized world. 

Where is the theatre that allows for unexpected things to happen? Who is willing to take such risks?

These aspects, sometimes referred to as theatre’s liveness, consist of all of the many nuances and connotations stemming from the fact that the performance is actually happening right there in front of you and has not been pre-recorded. These aspects, in one sense, can never be captured because to ‘capture’ them is to try to record them (using the primitive technology of repetition.) They cannot be captured, but they can be allowed for. If one is open and courageous enough it is possible to make room for them within the space of the performance and then see what happens (presumably something a bit different every night.) Where is the theatre that allows for unexpected things to happen? Who is willing to take such risks? When we allow for the unexpected, things can also go wrong, perhaps very wrong. The essential vulnerability of theatre is no longer controlled, managed and covered up but is instead emphasized and highlighted, making an already frightening situation all that much more precarious. People might even want their money back.

If theatre wishes to remain an art form it must seriously deal with the difficulties surrounding it’s own continuously increasing irrelevance...

Because there is of course another, more economic, reason why painting responded to photography in such a different manner than theatre responded to cinema. The market for visual art is structured very differently from the market for theatre. A painting is bought by one, most likely wealthy, individual or by an institution (which is often curated by an individual.) This individual or institution might be eccentric or, more to the point, might by some method be persuaded of the value and importance of a difficult work of art. Theatre must sell many tickets and therefore must appeal to many different individuals. To persuade a large number of people of the value and importance of a difficult work of art is implicitly more challenging. However, this is the ‘lowest common denominator’ argument and I am speaking here not as a marketer but as an artist. If theatre wishes to remain an art form it must seriously deal with the difficulties surrounding it’s own continuously increasing irrelevance and the potential ways out of this quagmire. If theatre does not wish to remain an art form then I see no honest reason anyone, audience and practitioners included, should continue to care about it’s future.

Something I often notice in critical theory is how much easier it is to identify and brilliantly analyze the many problems of the world than it is to propose anything resembling solutions. Analysis of problems seem accurate and convincing (and depressing) while proposed solutions often seem weak and ineffective in comparison. I often wonder if this is a problem with the world or actually a more schematic problem that has to do with almost mythological aspects of language. How writing something negative and apocalyptic seems so much more compelling than writing something civil or, for example, about having more community meetings. (Or, in relation to theatre, about having better theatre schools and audience development programs.)

Often I am not sure there are solutions.

I am therefore very much aware that I have outlined many of the problems of theatre and few of the solutions. Often I am not sure there are solutions. Real risks in theatre (as well as in life) are extremely rare. Nonetheless, I continue to search for a theatre that speaks effectively to the contemporary moment, that deals with the audience in an direct and intimate manner and yet remains strikingly vulnerable in the face of a somehow humiliating situation, that allows for the unpredictable and unexpected on a nightly basis. The fact that I consider these goals to be more or less impossible only occasionally dissuades me from fully pursuing them. Because of course ideals are only there to be strived towards. To fully achieve one’s ideals or one’s goals is to fall prey to ideology and therefore submit to disaster. To strive towards potentially impossible ideals that one nonetheless continuously re-evaluates and questions is, at it’s best, to place oneself in a position of doubt, uncertainty and risk. But now I worry that I’m sounding just a little bit smug…

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