Jul 11 2011

a little f*cking self-respect

Published by at 5:54 am under Uncategorized

Nice rant from Isaac at Parabasis about theater commentary that demands that theater be more like a video game, or a 7-course meal, or something. I especially like this part:

Theatre isn’t a video game. It’s not a rock concert. It’s not a magical bassoon. All of those work in different ways, and while there are lessons to be learned from each, let’s have a little fucking self-respect, okay?

As I said in the comments on his blog: word.

It was interesting to read this because last week I hosted Rick Burkhardt, the author of Conversation Storm, the play that Uranium Madhouse just produced, at my apartment, and we had some great theater intellectual jam sessions. One observation that he made that I thought was interesting was he thought it seemed that trending now in New York was an inclination to try to make an evening at the theater into a party, i.e. by serving drinks, even free drinks, that can be consumed during the event, or distributing drinks as part of the event, etc. So it seems it’s not just the theater commentariat, that Isaac is venting about , that is the problem, but it seems theater makers as well are tempted to try to prove they are cool by making it clear that theater isn’t that lame thing you thought it was, but really, some other kind of thing altogether.

Isaac again:

There are things theatre does better than any other medium or art form, and that’s what we should be focusing on.

And how. It has seemed to me that ever since The Sixth Sense, movies have been fixated on this attempt to depict dead people appearing to living people, as living people. The living people can’t tell that they are dead, or aren’t sure, which opens the door to all kinds of confusion. Most recently, Inception and Shutter Island epically failed with such a conceit, IMHO. This particular kind of antirealism seems not to be at home in the cinema. I am sure someone will point out an example of a movie in which dead people appear and it’s awesome, but for me, it seems to fall epically flat. (To be clear, I am talking about movies in which dead people appear to certain people in a way that they are utterly indistinguishable from the living people in the film, not zombie movies, for example, or ghost stories in which the ghosts are clearly ghosts.)

Attempting this type of encounter in the theater, on the other hand, is entirely possible, and can be extremely effective and powerful. I am thinking in particular of Neal Bell’s writing. Bell is a prolific playwright whose work has been done at Playwright’s Horizons, the Taper, and a host of other theaters throughout the country. He doesn’t have the name recognition of a Shanley or a Guare, but there is no question in my mind that he is their peer, to say the least. I have been tempted to describe his plays as comprised of a “dramaturgy of visitation.” In many of his plays, the dead appear to the living. The response this elicits from the living is often complicated: they may evince with bewilderment, tenderness, or even indifference. Bell usually doesn’t announce the way in which we are to take these appearances; that is, are they real hauntings, or projections of the living character’s psyche, or perhaps some hybrid of these two possibilities, say, that the longing and grief of the living character has somehow summoned the apparition in question. The “reality” of these encounters probably differs from play to play, from character to character. But we don’t need to resolve those questions to recognize how successful this device can be in a theatrical context. I saw Bell’s play Ready for the River in an Off-Off-Broadway production in New York lo these 20 years ago, and I remember it vividly. One dead character, a banker who had been shot at the play’s outset, appears in the backseat of a car that a mother and daughter on the lam are driving. In another scene, the father, from whom the mother-daughter pair are fleeing, appears behind the mother while she is sitting on a swing outside an abandoned farmhouse, wearing the ski mask he wore when he shot the banker. I remember both scenes as electrifying, in a way that such spectral manifestations pretty much never are in movies.

It’s hard to say what it is about the theater that makes this kind of encounter eminently possible, while in film, or in the recent ones I mention at least, it seems to fall flat. I would guess it has to do with the obvious artifice of the theatrical situation, whereas film presents itself, often, as having captured something as it actually happened. When we are asked to see it in another way, as the record of someone’s inner experience, for example, it seems to deflate to whole effect. Because of the manifestly artificial character of the theatrical situation, we can tolerate the artifice of the dead appearing to the living much more readily. In a sense, this hearkens back to Pirandello and Six Characters In Search of an Author, in which actors confront the characters they portrayed as flesh and blood. This impossibility required a theater to make such a meeting possible.

So yeah, there are things that theater can do really well that other mediums, for all their technological prowess and suppleness, simply can’t. Let’s take our cue from Isaac and remember that.

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