Why Theatre?

A human being is a part of the whole, called by us, “Universe,” a part limited in time and space. He experiences himself, his thoughts and feelings as something separated from the rest − a kind of optical delusion of his consciousness. This delusion is a kind of prison for us, restricting us to our personal desires and affection for a few persons nearest to us. Our task must be to free ourselves from this prison by widening our circle of compassion to embrace all living creatures and the whole of nature in its beauty. – Albert Einstein

I sit here typing away on the computer. On the couch to my left are two teenagers, my son and his best friend. Both of them sit with their MacBooks and cell phones. In the background the television dispenses an episode of Skins. Occasionally one of the boys looks up, momentarily distracted, to make a snide comment about the stupidity of one of the characters on TV, then goes back to his computer. The silence cracks with the sound of a text message arriving. My son picks up his phone, responds by text, then goes back to his computer. Not once in the entire hour do he and his friend exchange more than two sentences. I say nothing. This day is like every other day. From screen to screen to screen to screen we travel in a feedback loop.

Our society is broken. On so many different levels it becomes more and more impossible to confront the genuine. Gossip reigns. Empirical experience takes a back seat to insinuation, rumor, unsubstantiated and insubstantial opinion. Social identities are formed within people based not upon their actual experience with others, but rather from what is reported about them on Facebook, MySpace, Formspring, Xbox Live, in text that has no actual relation to the person. At its worst it all takes on a faceless brutality that leads a sensitive, gifted musician like Tyler Clementi to jump off the George Washington Bridge or a lovely, hopeful young lady like Phoebe Prince to hang herself in a bedroom closet.

People lead lives of a sort, but only insofar as they are recorded. Nothing has value or is “true” except insofar as it has been photographed or reported on Twitter. The eyewitness account is deprecated. The present moment in which everything truly lives remains invisible. After all, it will be recorded. Last year my son had free tickets to go to an US Open Cup final match. He did not go. He said he could watch it on TV later. Instead he went to the movies.

Be there. Watch it on TV. The experience is not the same, regardless of what we have all been told. Currently fashionable is a foolish notion that nothing is ever past, every moment can be replayed on some recording device and re-lived as immediately as at its origin.

In an over-populous world, a dominant irony is the absolute lack of community and genuine person-to-person relations. Like some bad writing of Baudrillard, people have come to live in a world of fragments, seeking a phony “hyper-reality,” a simulacrum of human contact without actual human beings. People are encountered, processed and dispatched as textual personae, not physical entities with bodies, sensation, reason, emotion. This is the world of our present-day office drones, our interned adolescents, our cynical suburban politicians. The postmodernist war against the unique and the individual has resulted disastrously in a near-total devaluation of the immediate.

Where does the theater fit into this?

All these avatars, handles, usernames, Miis, all this text – these are assuredly pseudo-theatrical trappings, attempts to remake our image of ourselves. What is missing from them is the presence of the self in the presence of an other: the physical, tangible presence of another body, not a simulacrum or a persona.

Simulacra. Pseudonymity. The theater does not truck them. It erases them. Theater restores the primacy of the human body. It restores presence. It restores the potential, the fear and the promise of the present, and gives an immediate response in the present tense. This is music. This is dance. This is drama. This is the tradition of the dramatic spectacle all around the world. Theater at its heart retains the origins and the power of these mysterious rites.

This is not to say that theater cannot grow in new directions. It has. Richard Maxwell has done incredible things with amateur actors and emotionless performance, returning the playwright’s emotion to primacy. Augusto Boal has made whole communities into spect-actors with his Forum Theater. Blast Theory and The Presence Project have done marvelous explorations of the boundaries between live and recorded performance. Steve Dixon has pushed this work even farther with internet viewers from all over the world feeding actors suggestions for script-based improvisation. In Seattle we have Implied Violence and the Degenerate Art Ensemble pushing the boundaries of pure movement and sound one more step beyond Artaud.

Yet even in its most experimental and elite manifestations, theater remains a communal experience of people, persons seeing themselves with, through and in other persons in a unique, irreproducible moment. A self, communing with other selves. Being here. Now. And never to be the same person, the same place, the same way again. The way a great concert feels. Bridging the gap between friends and strangers, the sense of a marvelous, wondrous love and beauty that restores joy to life, shared together. How easily we forget it when we do not seek it.

I have listened to many of my friends “give up” on the theater, declare the theater is dying (it always is), that the theater no longer means anything. Attendance is down. Politics have taken over. Tickets are too expensive. The development process is screwed. People in the theater are crazy. So completely have they identified the accoutrements of theatrical practice with the theater itself that one can hardly wonder why they do not recognize the theater itself anymore as prior to all, and beyond all. I remind them that as they sit there and level their complaints, they are actually engaging in theater: A self, communing with other selves, even if only to give the other a list of complaints.

If the practitioners of the theater – and this includes the audiences – have lost their way, that is not the fault of the theater, only of theatrical practice. Peter Brook once wrote that a necessary theater is “one in which there is only a practical difference between actor and audience, not a fundamental one.” Both actor and audience must feel the same need, the same desire, the same hunger for the theatrical experience. Theater has to be a part of their lives, not a mere diversion from it. If most actors and audiences have forgotten that life and that hunger, the lack is in them, not the theater.

I believe in the theater. I believe in its power to heal and transform. I believe that, someday, my son and his friend sitting on the couch wired into a world of meaningless irrelevance and inattention, will have some experience that will heal their fragmented spirits, if only temporarily. At that moment, they will connect with each other and with the world around them. Not with wires. Not with strings of ones and zeroes. Not through an impersonally recorded memory, but through a moment of passionate, spiritual thereness, an instantaneous sense of time not as an inexorable line, but as a convergence, a singularity in what Terence McKenna called the “conservation of connectedness.” It will free them, momentarily, from Einstein’s optical delusion of fragmented consciousness, and drive them to widen their circle of compassion to embrace the whole of nature in its beauty. It will be enough, for that moment. And it will happen in a theater.

Contact the author of this article or email tips@seattlest.com with further questions, comments or tips.
By Omar Willey in on April 2, 2011 12:00 PM
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