Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Theater Is Not a Gadget

Contributed by Guest Blogger of the Week, Jeff Lewonczyk.
Back in the 20th Century, when I was a freshman in college, young and bright-eyed and smarter than I’ll ever be again, I determined that the art of theater was facing one of two possible fates.

On the one hand, it could become the art of the decadent upper class, for whom the physical presence of actors and costumes and sets would be an expensive novelty unavailable to the teeming masses of the Information Economy, who would be basically plugged into computers all day as they languished, nearly lifeless, in fetid, windowless work-warrens while the owners of their “labor” made sport with fellow living creatures in astonishingly appointed pleasure-palaces, as if proximity to fellow humans was an unprecedented indulgence.

In the other scenario, more post-apocalyptic than dystopian, theater was the last art form accessible to these same teeming masses as they scrambled to squeeze the last few precious resources from the blighted environment around them. Theater’s the only medium, after all, that doesn’t require any materials – all you need is one or more people, and a location. (Okay, fine, oral storytelling and poetry also fit that bill, but once they’re performed aloud, aren’t they theater?) It would be the only form of community and distraction available to these godforsaken wanderers as they tried to rebuild civilization from the junk of its wreckage.

Well, here we are, in the 21st Century. I’m older and dumber and less optimistic, and it turns out I was completely wrong about my eschatological daydreams – because apparently they’re BOTH right.

I’m sorry, but no matter how crowd-friendly and tourist-courting it is, any medium whose most “accessible” exponent charges more than $100 a pop for a couple brief hours of manufactured experience is approximately as populist as a diamond-encrusted foie-gras spoon. The intellectually humble corn-pone musical is equally as elitist as the most esoteric grand opera at this point.

And yet theater-making has, by all accounts, grown exponentially. There are more productions, performers and companies than ever before. In a city as unrealistic as New York real estate is always going to be an issue, but there are all these legends of artists retreating to the once-unthinkable horizons of Buffalo and Detroit and the like, where the authorities will apparently pay you to take the land away from them provided you promise to put out the green-glowing radioactive chemical fires at your own expense. You may not be able to attract a mass audience out there, but theater’s not a mass medium – if you want to use this brave frontier as a stage for telling stories through performance, then goddammit, who’s going to stop you? Or, to stretch the issue, take a look at Occupy Wall Street: people actually putting their physical presence on the line in order to create a narrative with resonance among all the people who observe it – sounds pretty theatrical to me.

I think the reason for this simultaneous decay and abundance (which is just another way of describing life, in the end) is that, at its core, theater is one of the most humanistic things you can do with your time. And I say this as someone who thinks the Internet is really, really cool and promises to change the way we live even further than it already has.

The thing is, I sit around all day on a computer looking at things and writing things, and, most nights, I go home to sit around in front of a different computer looking at and writing different things. I often whine, inwardly or externally, when I have to drag myself out to go see a play or a performance of some sort – even one featuring my closest friends and loved ones. And you know what? It’s a damn good thing I make the effort. I’m not going to go so far as to say that theater saves your soul, but yeah, it probably does. It forces you to be with other people, watching people do people things. It’s sort of like this bounded-off liminal space where people get together to be human. Which means that it’s often boring, embarrassing and infuriating, but also funny, surprising, inspiring and balls-out weird, no matter how hard it tries to pretend otherwise. Like (natch) you and me.

And the best thing is that it’s still available to all of us, any day of the week, without having to pawn our future for it. And it may be expensive to make on one level, but on another level, all you need is a street corner, an audience of one and a will to do it.

[POSTSCRIPT – Here are a couple of books you should read: You Are Not a Gadget, by Jaron Lanier, and The Most Human Human, by Brian Christian. They’re fascinating looks at what it means to be human in a world of technological ascendancy, and they’re great resources for people chained to this most analog of art forms.]


  1. Jeff very insightful post. For years many performing arts organizations across the country have been talking about how they can remain relevant and compete with all of the new technology that has commandeered our society. And while I understand the concern I also think there is something ironic and humorous about dilemma.

    Technology is trying so hard to create an experience that mimics what the performing arts already provide. 3D - well you don't get more 3D than sitting in a theatre watching real 3 dimensional performers. Interactive - we all know that theatre is not theatre without an audience and therefore their interaction is a mandatory part of the experience. Instant gratification - anyone who has told a joke on stage knows how instant the reaction can be. Social Networking - we got it. Live - yep. Informative and personal and topical - hells yeah.

    But, like you, I don't see technology at odds with the performing arts. I actually see a cool symbiotic relationship that OOB - perhaps better than many of our counterparts in the performing arts - is able to develop and use and integrate into the art.

    Nice post. Thank you.

  2. Terrific post, Jeff. Despite all the other distractions, I'm heartened by how many of us still go out of our way to make time to see live theatre (even if we whine a little while schlepping to it). Computers, TV and movies are great, but nothing compares to the feeling of community that comes from watching and interacting with live performers on a stage.