Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Past the Back End of Nowhere: Continued Thoughts on the End of Theatre

Near the beginning of last month, I posed a question to our readers about the end of the theatre.  Quite simply: have we reached it?  If we have:  what next?  If we have: why not?

My friend and colleague, writer/comedian Phil Keeling, posted a thoughtful rant (yes, those exist) on the death of theatre, concluding (rightly) that theatre is with us to stay because "As long as people have imaginations, a desire to perform, and an empty space in their garage, theatre will always exist."  However, he also points out that lamentation on the state of theatre are often the province of grad students who are confused about the low turnout for their semi-obscure production.

Yet aren't we basing the continued survival of an audience-based art form on the continued desires of the practitioners?  In her recent piece for Howlround, Building the Audience Into the Process, Lana Leslie writes that the inclusion of the audience is one of the hallmarks of the process of her company, the Austin-based Rude Mechs.  And, to step even further back, doesn't Peter Brook list the audience as one of the key ingredients in his book The Empty Space?

A while back, I posted a desire to develop a Gonzo Dramaturgy.  A dramaturgy that was inherently political (in the broadest sense of the term) and based in the idea that "Politics is the art of Controlling Your Environment."  We, as artists, should be working to empower the audience to do exactly this:  To Control their environment.

However, through the fog of grading and prescription medications of various flavours, I fear I did not quite phrase the question clearly enough.  I used "end" in the same way that Francis Fukuyama used it in the title of his book The End of History.  In this, Fukuyama postulates that the development of Western-style, liberal democracy has been the dominant historical trend, and that history has now fulfilled this end.  In this case, end is synonymous with "purpose."  So, as opposed to wondering about the death of the theatre, I was instead pondering (or trying to) the purpose of our "fabulous invalid."

I feel the purpose of theatre is to create a powerful, affective, effective communal experience.  To bring them, together, to a liminal state and then through to a new state.  The question is, has the theatre managed to accomplish this?  If it has, then should the purpose, the end, change?  And if it has not, why has it failed to do so?  I look forward to hearing from you down in the comments.


  1. As a dramaturg when I look out and see an empty house I feel somewhat responsible. I see part of my role as audience engagement. Talk back sessions, cast promotion and classroom visits, sharing the story of the creation of the pieces, and of course working to create study guides or parent guides are all a part of getting "butts in the seats".

  2. Good point Paul. But just as importantly, I think the theatre needs to start thinking seriously about why those butts need to be in the seats in the first place.