Friday, May 13, 2011

We Are Such Stuff

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, August Schulenburg.

“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”

The infamous first lines of Peter Brook’s The Empty Space have set a tingle racing up the necks of undergrads ever since it was published in 1968. “Yes, that’s what it is, all it is, that’s all you need!” I remember thinking triumphantly in the sun-soaked quiet of Trexler Library.

The more you turn the statement over in your mind, however, the more its simplicity gives way to something more difficult. Theatre is not just someone walking across a bare stage with someone watching; or rather, that simple act has many different meanings. And so, our conversations about theatre are often defeated by the sheer size of the word, and the many different ideas it contains.

So what exactly is this stuff that dreams are made on?

Theatre is story: Theatre was the first storytelling medium, a brilliant invention to condense events into a pattern of cause and effect that could be re-enacted by anyone, and so passed down for as long as the story was useful. Because our pattern-hungry minds are so primed for narrative, storytelling is often seen as theatre’s primary function. As a result, it can seem theatre’s closest relatives are TV and Film, two later platforms for the transmission of story.

In reaction to the ease of film’s distribution, theatre retrenched in part by pretending there were stories that were “uniquely theatrical”, and therefore immune from the superior reach of film. This even led to a move away from story entirely, by fracturing narrative to the edge of incomprehensibility; but a confusing story is still a story, and any art form whose whole is revealed through its parts changing through time cannot pretend it is made of some strange new stuff. Theatre is story, and to those who feel this part of theatre most keenly, all that is needed to resuscitate the field are better stories (or the right stories, whatever that means to the person speaking). 

Theatre is place: Inevitably, when the old “theatre” vs “theater” debate comes up, someone will patiently instruct you that “theatre” is the act and “theater” is the place. Regardless of where you fall on that great butter battle, the simple fact is theatre is local. It can only happen in one place at a time. That weakness is also a strength, and theatre people can’t help but rhapsodize about the magic of artists and audiences “breathing the same air”. That many others don’t see that value in breathing the same air, and would instead prefer to be chilling with popcorn and beer as they get their story fix from TV, doesn’t change this unique aspect of theatre in an increasingly placeless world.

Theatre can also change the nature of a place: that charged feeling of possibility in an empty theatre can be translated to literally anywhere. Those who connect deeply with theatre as place often believe that theatre simply isn’t being done in the right locations, and if we free it from the traditional buildings(or change the dynamics of those spaces), all will be well.

Theatre is community: Both the process of making and process of performing a play are social acts, and because theatre is place, that social act invariably creates or reshapes a community. A unique community is created with each performance, and the impact of that event spreads out through the local culture. The invention of the 501c3 has led many not-for-profit theatres to place this civic/social aspect of theatre as paramount, believing that if only theatres better served their communities (whatever they believe that community to be), they would thrive.

Theatre is time: Theatre is never complete; it is always becoming (which I find very becoming (sorry)). Both as a collaborative process in rehearsal, and a collaborative event in performance, it exists only by moving through time, unfixed and in flux. There can be no definitive performance, because when the curtain comes down, it continues to evolve in the leaky cup of our minds. Those who most prize this aspect of theatre says things like “process is more important than product”, and believe if audiences only embraced process more, theatre would be properly supported.

Theatre is play: You might note that all of the above holds true for most religious rituals, and I sometimes think of religion as a play where the audience goes on suspending their disbelief after the curtain falls. But the transubstantiation of theatre, even in the most documentary of plays, is still the province of imagination, and that difference makes all the difference. Consequences of human choices matter both more and less in a play: more, because the pressure of a play’s brevity makes each choice (espresso, diamonds) count; less, because the consequences of those choices disappear into (thin) air when the play ends. The safety of this perilous place is what makes theatre as play so important; and this may be what I love best about it; that all the dead bodies rise again, that all the reunited lovers get on separate trains to go home.

You will note one glaring omission from this list: theatre is business. To make theatre, you may very well need to make some business decisions; and the theatre we end up talking about most is usually made by businesses. But it’s important to separate theatre from businesses who make theatre, as it is truly possible to make theatre from almost nothing (see Rising Phoenix’s Cino Nights); and there is no guarantee that financial resources will make it any easier to bottle the lightning.  

If there is a single characteristic that separates Indie theatre from the other ways to make plays, it may simply be that we live that distinction. We make theatre first, and businesses that make theatre second (if at all). That’s not to say that Indie theatre folk aren’t enterprising and entrepreneurial; some of the savviest folks you’ll meet sling spreadsheets for Indie companies. Nor does it mean that distinction belongs only to those toiling in the Codes. There are theatres producing at the highest resource levels that somehow keep that Indie spirit intact, just as there are many producing on gaff tape and moxie solely to “make it big”.

The distinction is essential in a culture that devalues any human activity that doesn’t make a financial profit, and in a profession where self-worth is so often determined by the financial size of the businesses where you make your theatre. I like artists making a living, just as I want everyone on the earth having enough to live out their lives in peace and dignity. But when you tell me you’re a theatre artist, I measure you first by what stories you’re telling, who you’re telling them for, who you’re making them with, and what they make possible in human life that wasn’t possible before. That’s the stuff Indie theatre artists are made on, so catch us now, because the thin air is calling, and we’ll leave not a rack behind.


  1. Great post, Gus! I spread some Twitter love (via @Afrodyke.

    "The Empty Space" was the first theatre book I ever read. I don't remember what made me pick it up, but it really made a lasting impression on me. As a late-budding playwright, it helped ground me in a sense of the real possibilities of theatre. Perhaps as a result of that, I bring a real openness to what is possible with theatre. I don't come at theatre with a lot of "should-have" and "must-have" baggage.

    "The Empty Space" affirmed a lot of what I've been doing since childhood, when I often pretended to be other people in other worlds interacting with imaginary characters who may or may not be represented by a tree, a stuffed animal, or the vacant space right next to me. Even now, my plays (like this one) tend to include a lot of surreal or fantastical elements in a matter-of-fact way.

    And as an artist, "The Empty Space" and "The Open Door" have both contributed to my idea of theatre as a space (real and psychologial) of boundless possibility. In fact, my biggest frustration is often not ineptitude, but a lack of theatrical imagination.

  2. Thanks for this one, Gus. It has me itching to add:

    Theater is health: almost every civilization traces theater back to its medicinal recipes -- the Shaman, native american healer, witch doctor, Sekhmet priest, etc. -- they all used performance in their practice. At some point theater and medicine part ways every time, but there are many books that explain better than I can the deeply woven connections that I believe we still need today.

    Theater is education: no matter how old we get, learning is still central to a meaningful life worth living. I’m pretty sure that the 501(c)3 tax code does not mention theater at all. I believe that theater falls under education in the clause, and that’s why our govt deems it valid for certain tax breaks.

    Also, I agree with the distribution advantages to film, but I’ve always felt that its ability to be a more realistic mirror of life is a better reason for its competitive edge. Decade after decade film and tv have become more and more naturalistic (as theater once did); and while that has attracted greater audiences, I believe that it has created an opening where theater is becoming bigger and more imaginative. To me, theater is hanging on by not trying to compete with film/tv, but by becoming more extra-ordinary, maybe more abstract, but certainly more fantastic (and fulfilling) in its storytelling.