Wednesday, November 28, 2012

Demons Begone: An Exorcism, or "What can Theatre Do for You?"

Fluorescent lights.  By god, why is it always fluorescent lights?  Even at the best of times they attach themselves to the nervous system like the Shirime.  Have you ever encountered the Shirime?  This Japanese ghost has an eyeball in his rectum and gladly exposes it to wandering travellers on moonlit roads.  This kind of surreal assault afflicts one with both terror and confusion and drags blood to the back of the brain.  Easy enough to deal with on a dark road outside of Kyoto, but this type of thing is more than enough to cope with in the glair of damn fluorescent lights.

With that kind of light pouring harsh vibes on the brain stem, it's hard enough to retain civil discourse much less explain your carefully researched work to a body of august scholars, but thats the situation that I was facing at my first academic conference, and I was feeling the fear.  When I stood up to read my paper, all I could do was rattle through the woods and hope something stuck.

But then a group from Yale's divinity school made their presentation, and those damn lights didn't seem so bad anymore.  They took the old improv game "lines from a hat," and performed it for the assembly.  But instead of simply having the audience toss random lines into the hat, they had them write down a concern, problem, worry, or other issue with the conference itself.  They then performed it and, though mine wasn't one used, the very feel of the room was different.  Schoedinger's kittens had curled themselves up in every lap and purred contentedly.

I tell this story because it's an excellent example of what the dramatic arts can do FOR it's audience.  This improvisation exercise formed what was, in essence, an anxiety exorcism.  My Shirime vanished like smoke on the wind in the face of this powerful community experience.  It wasn't great drama, but what it might've lacked in craftsmanship it definitely made up for in audience impact.

This story came to mind recently when I was reading Polly Carl's Howlround article "Beauty and the Decline of the Professional."  She asks, essentially, "Has the theatre's generally closed system  and village-like atmosphere distanced us from our audience?"  Have we as a discipline lost sight of what originally kept us in business?  My experience with the "exorcism" reminded me about what we could really accomplish with just a few basic tools.  Had I been forgetting that in my quest for artistic accolade?

I don't want to say yes, but I get a sneaking suspicion that if I turn around, an affirmative will be staring at me like a great big Shirime eye.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Notes Towards a Gonzo Dramaturgy

"Politics is the art of controlling your environment."--Hunter S. Thompson

Make no bones about it, kick and scream all you like, but the theatre is an inherently political art.  Regardless of what you do, what your show choice is, the casting decisions, or venue, the shadow of politics will hang over you like the ICBM of Damocles.  The contemporary theatre needs to either become comfortable with this fact, and embrace it, or resign itself to the same forces that rendered the gaslight, eight-track , and buggy whip the hot seller they are today.

Let's begin with just a little bit of history regarding the relationship between theater and politics.  A little history is good for the soul and, if you do not have a clear idea about where you are coming from, you don't have a chance of knowing where you're going.  But one of the earliest recorded run-ins between theatre and politics was the poets banishment from Plato's "City in Speech" in order to make way for the philosopher-king.  Socrates in the "Apology" even mentions Aristophanes' "The Clouds" as being one of the strongest arguments against him.  And in contemporary politics, theatre (and its close cousin rhetoric) is generally derided.  "Political theatre" sounds only slightly more pleasant coming from the mouth of a pundit than something like "Liver Herpes."  It dredges up everything potentially fake, shallow, and vacuous in the democratic process in a compact two words and effectively castigates a rival.  These two forces have been hopelessly intertwined and at loggerheads throughout their history, which is the natural enough case when really there are two organisms eating out of the same pool of resources.

And let us acknowledge the full spectrum of what generally falls under the "political theatre" spectrum.  You have plays like "Democracy," "Farragut North," and "Leaving" which deal directly with politics, policital figures, and the mechanics of statecraft.  Closely related come agit-prop or issue pieces like "Normal Heart," "Hair," or "The Laramie Project."  Usually concieved with a particular motivation in mind, usually to shake up the accepted wisdom or strip away a cover story and expose the audience to something.  We can spread this even further to cover acts like Pussy Riot and the work of Dario Fo and Augusto Boal as well.  Already we find a great deal of performance that easily falls under the rubric of "political."

But what we're getting at is even more basic than that.  ALL theatre is political.  By the very act of bringing people together (both collaborators and audience) you are committing a political act.  That community theatre down the road, with its seasons comprised of the most non-objectionable material possible still brings people together to engage in escapism.  The college that rejects a piece because it's not "middle-of-the-road enough" stands as bosom buddies to the frightened ostrich.  These are political acts to reinforce the status quo.  Though they might not be intentional, the final effect does not change.  "Everything is just fine.... forget about things for a while.  Dr. Feelgood will see you now."

There's nothing wrong with a little escapism, so long as you acknowledge that is what it is.  But why pass up so many opportunities as they present themselves?  GOP Senator Marco Rubio acknowledged his anti-science stance recently in an interview when asked about the age of the Earth.  Why is he not being mocked mercilessly for this?  Why laugh at "Last of the Red Hot Lovers" when there is so much more fertile ground that is being largely neglected by the American theatre?  Hypocrisies are shining like cat turds in the moonlight!  It is time that the American theatre seize control of its environment.  The stage is one of the most powerful communication tools in the history of mankind, and the rise of internet technology has extended our reach further than we ever thought imaginable.  Henry Mencken is dead and gone, so is Mark Twain.  Even Vonnegut and Thompson have left us.  So it is time that the theatre reclaim its rightful place and start telling everyone that the Emperor has no clothes.  It is time for a Gonzo Dramaturgy.

The difference between the pundits who deride "political theatre" and those of us engaged in Gonzo Dramaturgy is that we, unlike the aforementioned pundits, are operating in good faith and full knowledge of what we are doing.  They are hypocrits.  We are not.