Commentary: Why does theatre survive?

Teresa Eyring of Theatre Communications Group, 2/11 issue of American Theatre

Theatre, in its thousands of years of existence, has taken on many forms. It has thrived and has been banned. Predictions have been made that it would die with the advent of radio, movies, television, home video and the Internet. Instead, it has survived and grown. We seek explanations for why: Is it that people have a fundamental need to tell stories and act them out? That sitting in a room together hearing a story is one of civilization's oldest acts? That no matter how high-tech the world becomes, people will still need the live touch of other human beings? We may never have the right explanation. But we nevertheless continue to make theatre and to make theatre central to lives and communities -- while, as an industry, also providing jobs, gathering places and opportunities to inspire discourse.


Commentary: For theater to remain relevant, remove the trickery

Gwydion Suilebhan on his blog, 3/1/11

I've been thinking about the following quote from Peter Brook's The Empty Space for a while now:

"Once, the theatre could begin as magic: magic at the sacred festival, or magic as the footlights came up. Today, it is the other way round. The theatre is hardly wanted and its workers are hardly trusted. So we cannot assume that the audience will assemble devoutly and attentively. It is up to us to capture its attention and compel its belief. To do so we must prove that there will be no trickery, nothing hidden. We must open our empty hands and show that really there is nothing up our sleeves. Only then can we begin."

Theater was born in a very different world than the one in which it now lives. The people who come to our theaters today come with very different brains. If our art form is to remain relevant, it has to engage the modern mind.  I think Brook is onto something when he speaks about the lack of trickery. To distinguish itself, theater must be real -- which is not at ALL to say it should be realistic. Realism in theater is always a kind of shell game, an attempt to divert an audience's attention away from the fictions it's constructed out of.  Better to leave the strings showing: to keep sets simple; to write plays that don't quite fit together; to under-act, adopting as much as possible the rhythms of natural speech. This "Theater of Empiricism" would treat each performance like an experiment.   It would not be designed to trick anyone or to be ritualized. Its sole aims -- like any experiment -- would be discovery and the testing of hypotheses, nothing more.  I should very much like to be a part of such a theater.


Commentary: Theater should play with audience expectations

Christopher W. White,, 3/2/11

I am fascinated by the set of expectations, conscious or unconscious, of every attendee at a performance.  It's commonplace these days that everyone who engages with a work of art is committing his or her own act of creation; engagement demands interpretation, personalization, the drawing of connections between one's own experience and the work of art.  In the words of philosopher Jacques Rancière, the spectator "makes his poem with the poem that is performed in front of him."  Theater is a particularly fertile discipline for inviting creative acts from the audience, because the general paucity of our means (even in the largest of houses) demands that the audience fills in the gaps in our patchwork with imaginative bridges.  [But the] tendency of audiences to expect narrative of their theater became something of a conundrum for us. I began to realize that the very act of entering a recognizable theater space instilled a certain set of expectations that naturally infuse the creative spectatorship of our audience members. I relish the challenge of repeatedly wrestling with the human narrative instinct... what can we create with a different set of expectations?  What poems would the audience make in a supermarket, a drainage ditch, a living room?  From this rash has sprung our series of Occurrences, experimental performance pieces for non-theatrical spaces.  These are early days, and I envision our tactics and interests will change. But thus far, this has proven a rich vein for us to mine, one that challenges not only our audience's expectations of what performance can be, but our own as well.


Commentary: New plays versus new films

Matthew Freeman on his blog On Theatre and Politics, 3/1/11

In the world of films, the new film is a commercially viable prospect (See it on opening weekend! The hottest young stars and directors!) and the older films are pretty much immediately viewed as classics, Netflix fodder, stuff for Criterion, or trucked out by film societies. You'll undoubtedly find more non-profit foundations dedicated to the preservation of old French black and white films by obscure directors than non-profits dedicated to new filmmakers. New filmmakers are out there hustling to connect to studios and producers and market their work. They are the lifeblood of an industry that wants to always make new stars, new movies, churns out what's next all the time.  But in theater, old workhorses are largely seen as the only truly commercially viable prospect, and new plays are largely (not entirely, but largely) a non-profit proposition. New Play Development is somehow viewed as a grant-worthy public works project, and a re-imagined Our Town is more likely to be $65 a ticket.  In short:

New Movie = Run Out And See It Before Your Friends Do
New Play = A Solemn Public Good, Please Donate
Old Movie = Something That Needs To Be Preserved And Discussed In Graduate Programs
Old Play = Perhaps A Broadway Revival?

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