Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Theatricality: A Definition

Theatricality is a term we playwrights throw around quite a bit. It seems to be a catch-all phrase for describing the degree of "theater-ness" a play or production has. There should be a more concrete definition of theatricality.

Like all good little theorists, I'll start by reaching back to Aristotle. In the Poetics, Aristotle defines drama as a species of imitation. There is a lot of argument about what exactly he meant by mimesis but for these purposes, I propose that imitation is the process of representing a reality in such a way that the audience can make the connection between the representation and the reality.

Support for this definition can be found in the Poetics: "First, the instinct of imitation is implanted in man from childhood… and no less universal is the pleasure felt in things imitated.… The cause of this again is, that to learn gives the liveliest pleasure... Thus the reason why men enjoy seeing a likeness is, that in contemplating it they find themselves learning or inferring, and saying perhaps, 'Ah, that is he.'"

So there is a distance between the representation and the thing represented. It is this distance that the audience crosses when they learn or infer the connection between representation and reality.

In American Realism, it appears as if the goal is to make the distance between the representation and the object of representation as small as possible. Certainly, mainstream television and film strive to minimize that distance. Even in fantasy and action films reviewers comment on how "real" the effects are.

Note: I am not one of those playwrights who look down their collective nose at television and film. If a television or film producer is reading this: please, back-up a dump truck of money to my door.

In theater - often due to lack of resources or the limitations of live performance - we can't always make things as "real" as American Realism might demand. Too often, we try to get as close as we can, and hope our audience will forgive crowbars that bend when you swing them, lakes represented by trap doors and mis-timed splashes of water, and other ridiculous semi-real attempts to make the impossible happen on stage.

On the other hand, there are productions that engage the physical limitations of the theater space, and implement creative solutions to represent the impossible on stage. In those productions, we start talking about theatricality.

If realism is an attempt to minimize the distance between reality and the represented, theatricality embraces that distance. Theatricality celebrates the distance between the represented and real with a tenuous bridge of creative solutions.

I'm not speaking here of something like the helicopter in Ms. Saigon. Yes, a creative engineering feat was leverage to get that helicopter on stage. But in that case, the creativity was focused on hiding the mechanics from the audience. In a theatrical solution, the mechanics are visible. In a theatrical solution, the visible mechanics help generate meaning in the play.

A recent example would be the House Theater's Production of The Sparrow. In order to represent Emily's trip back to town, two actors sat in chairs as other cast members walked slowly past them, bearing framed pictures of the countryside. As an audience member, I found great pleasure in making the connection between the moving landscape pictures and my own cross-country trips. The motif of framed portraits came up again and again, and the production was able to build a sense of community (and its associated loss) with the used of these carried pictures. In this way a theatrical solution to "how do we get a car on stage?" becomes a way to build meaning in the work.

When I discuss a show's theatricality, I'm speaking of bridging the distance between the represented and the real with creative solutions that 1) do not pretend the distance doesn't exist and 2) use that distance as on opportunity to build an additional layer of meaning into the show.


Carolina said...

That's a beautiful article.
The theater is magical. In there we share a common sense of existence that allows some level of identification (and then engagement) to happen through mechanisms that go beyond the means of our daily reality - displaced of theatricality. In the theater we reached the unachievable. We can create inexistent means, and in that there is great identification as well, one full of satisfaction - that only the theater can bring.
Such is the theatricality of life - or of the theater, I guess. Don't know.

Christopher De Paola said...

I'm gonna attempt to give theatricality a definition... I can relate theatricality to an artist painting on a canvas. In this analogy, the canvas is the stage/production and the painter is the playwright. An artist such as Norman Rockwell painted reality as the eye sees it. An artist like Picasso painted reality through his eyes- which was his interpretation of reality. These are two different approaches to same end. I think playwrights are the same.

There’s the famous Norman Rockwell self portrait in which he’s looking at himself in the mirror while painting the mirror image of himself- he is painting reality by getting every detail exact. On the other hand, Picasso painted many self portraits- most of them in his abstract style. On the canvas, Picasso’s eye may be oversized and placed in an odd spot on the face- but ultimately, as viewers, we know it’s an eye on a face- and that is pleasing. Pleasing because we are not only seeing and acknowledging reality (an eye on a face), but we are seeing Picasso’s interpretation of an eye on a face. The painting works on two levels. Picasso lays out the dots in his paintings and then we are allowed to engage the painting and connect those dots. The viewer is bridging a gap, so to speak. And by bridging the gap, the viewer also engages the art form.

The example of the train travel in The Sparrow is the same. We, as audience members can acknowledge the reality of train travel, but we are seeing it through the eyes of the production team (as paintings of the countryside held by actors in motion). The Sparrow allowed its audience members to bridge the gap from interpretation to reality. And by doing so, we are engaging the play in an active way.

If there were an actual train on stage- then that would be more the Norman Rockwell approach to self portrait. The level of audience engagement is drastically diminished if the train and all of its details are put on the stage, because the audience does not have to connect any dots; the audience has no gap to bridge- the bridge has been given to them by the artist.

So I would say… Theatricality is the consequence of a playwright/artist forcing the audience to bridge the gap between interpretation and reality.

I actually believe that Aaron’s definition of imitation derived from Aristotle- “imitation is the process of representing a reality in such a way that the audience can make the connection between the representation and the reality”- is actually a pretty damn good definition of theatricality…

So are imitation and theatricality the same? Through the process of imitation do we automatically get theatricality? Are they intrinsically tied together? That works so long as imitation is “the process of representing reality,” no? “Representing” being the operative word. I guess representation has to be clarified. Are there levels of representation? Exact representations? General representations…?

Aaron Carter said...

Christopher's definition of theatricality has gotten me thinking. Perhaps "representation of reality" is too narrow a definition.

Theatricality also involves the representation of things that could never otherwise be perceived, does it not?

I'm trying to think of a good example, but I'm falling short. I've read a fair number of shows that attempt to make concrete a state of mind, but never have seen productions. Funnyhouse of A Negro comes to mind.

Does representation of state of mind fall in the real of theatricality?

Rob said...

Does the representation of a state of mind fall within the realm of theatricality?

Sure, why not?

I think that anytime we deal with representation we deal in theatricality. There is the thing itself, and there is the abstraction, and in this abstraction lies the essence of theatricality.

For me, the difference between presentations that are "theatrical" and those that more "non-theatrical" lies somewhere in the realm of degree. You can have (in the theatre) people walking by with pictures of the countryside, or you can have (in a film) a green-screen projection of the actual countryside--both are abstractions of the thing itself, one is more "theatrical" because it involves a higher degree of abstraction.

There is also a level of intent here--when there are actors walking by with pictures, versimilitude is clearly not the objective (as it usually is with green-screen). And of course, we're all in on it, so there is complicity between artists and audience...

I think it's the essential demand of theatre on the audience--that they create, using the abstraction that they see, an experience of the thing itself. The demand on us is that we do not let things become so abstract that they cease to be meaningful...

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