Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Does Stage Have A Purpose?

Judging by the posts yesterday, am I to believe that theatre isn't really necessary- in the sense that there is nothing you can do on a stage that you cannot do anywhere else? Because the obvious "live-ness" can be duplicated around the campfire or at a bar. So is everyone in agreement that the purpose of theatre is in question here?

David seemed to think it was about preference- people just like theatre as a medium- so that's why it exists (drastic paraphrase of David's posts- but I think the essence of them. And I'm sure he'll correct me if I'm wrong :))

This is interesting. It seems to me there's a bit of a consensus here. So are most folks saying that there is no inherent theatricality to theatre that makes it impossible to duplicate in another medium?

(Notice I keep coming back to theatricality- c'mon guys- someone define it already!!)


Tony said...

I think there are a couple of different answers to your questions. I think it is helpful to separate the act of theatre from the buildings that have stages. So in part, yes it can be done in a bar or a campfire or a stage. The location doesn't make theatre or theatricality. I've never bought into the notion that a stage is a sacred place. What happens on a stage maybe, but there's nothing sacred about a $55 million dollar complex covered in corporate logos, even if it houses a stage. There is nothing specific about a stage other than that's normally where theatre happens. I would say a "stage" isn't necessary for theatre.

I'd tweak the term "live-ness" to "living." Actors and audience living in the same story (or the fancy pants version: the mutual exchange of energy among those sharing a communal storytelling experience.) That is what is unable to be duplicated in another medium. The idea of catharsis and the many differing shades of silence when a production is really clicking are two examples of the exchange of energy. It is difficult to define, but undeniable as an audience member or actor when it is flowing freely.

So while there are many permutations of "theatricality", for me, it is simply a signifier for an action or act that is given meaning from a shared vocabulary created out of communal storytelling. Case in point, blue cloth for water. When done well it still works well in theatre. Has for thousands of years. In another medium (say film or tv) it would look silly--as it often can in a play. The theatricality of it allows the audience to buy into it. The concept of willful suspension of disbelief is poopooed nowadays, but I think it is really the heart of theatricality.

Greg McCain said...

Christopher, This is about the best definition of theatricallity that I know. But there is an intangible element that defies an exact definition.

Arts Journal
"That the audience is there and we can talk to them! That’s the greatest theatricality of all—to remember and act upon the fact that the performer and the audience, the preparer and the partaker, share the same space and time and air together.
Ultimately theatricality is why we do theater at all. If all we wanted to do was tell significant stories and see people do what they do, we could get along very well without theater. Film and TV would do the job just fine. But when we want theater, film and TV don’t cut it, because they don’t have theatricality. We don’t get the living presence of the performer in those forms. We don’t get the utter freedom of the imagination that comes from being in the theater. Theatricality lets us soar together, in one place and space, and that gives us rewards we just don’t get anywhere else."

When he says, "we don't get the utter freedom of imagination that comes from being in the theater," he is not to saying that other art forms are devoid of imagination, but rather that the willing suspension of disbelief that comes from theatricality can't be duplicated at the same level in TV or Film. Sure, we suspend our disbelief in those mediums, but because of its liveness, when a play is able to pull us in and we believe that we are in a different place then we have effective theatricality. Can this be achieved at a bar or around a campfire, sure why not, but you'd have to be really good in order to overcome the distraction in those spaces.

This is what makes Theater necessary it alone, when done well, takes us to places in our imaginations that can't be done in the same way as other medium.

Anonymous said...

Is there something possibly to the idea of witnessing rather than merely watching.


Greg McCain said...

dv, Good point! The Audience should have a sense of witnessing rather than watching. We watch TV and and film, although, depending on the style of film and TV we could get a sense of witnessing there as well. But theater needs to feel interactive, not in the performance art sense of haveing blood or raw meat splattered on you, but in the sense of going on the journey with the charaters.

Tony said...

I've always loved the french phrase for seeing a play. So say they saw a new show at Steppenwolf:

J'ai participe a la nouveau spectacle au Steppenwolf.

I participated at the new show at Steppenwolf.

Though some will say J'ai regarde--I watched--if they didn't like it.

ian mairs said...

I think the stage has a purpose because it allows anyone the right and freedom to hold something up in to the light.
I remember going up against a bunch of film students for a particular fellowship. I looked over their budgets and thought "wow, if they don't get fifty grand this movie will never get made." And then I read their screenplays and thought it was maybe okay that they didn't get made.
You give me fifty grand and I will put on twenty five plays for two grand a piece. Or a hundred plays for five hundred bucks a piece.
And out of this will come some ingenuity and a theatrical language in some cases. And in other cases, we would see some work
that looked like cable tv on stage. And then some of it would just plain old suck.
The protocol established for producing a new work at a large theater is a hoot to me. I will hear things like "this is Suzy and she is spending hours on the sound design finding the perfect sound for the splash of water in the second act." And I am like get a pitcher, a bucket and pour like mad, sister.
It really is about some light, and a floor and performers. I get worried when I talk to other writers and they have such rules about how and when a play is produced. A waiting game that can go on ad nauseum (did I spell that right?)
Lee Blessing said at the OU festival a few years back "I write alot of them (plays) because I get very few of them right." And if I put up a show for $200 dollars and it doesn't work-so be it. Two million? I am walking the floors thinking I should have sent that dough to Rwanda or New Orleans.
I am losing the narrative to my thought, which is dangerous water. You all inspire me and get me thinking!

Paul Rekk said...

I realize I'm waaaaaaay late to the discussion and I plan on going back and reading the whole shebang as soon as I have more than 15 minutes of internet time at my disposal, but how about the idea that a piece of theatre is created (I hesitate to use 'necessary' -- I'm with David) not to embody the concept of theatricality, but to explore the concept (at least, and always, to a certain degree).

What is theatrical? What is anti-theatrical? What doesn't work on stage and how can I make it work? What does work on stage and how can I make it not work? All theatre approaches these questions on a certain level of consciousness -- for my money, some of the most interesting works are the ones that attack the idea directly. This is theatricality. And it's not an answer, it's a question. As soon as we've found the definition, there's nowhere else to go.

Hopefully I can be a little less abstract when I've caught up on the conversation... sorry!

Melissa said...

I just spent a lot of time reading much of this blog, and my brain is eating. Which is nice. I'm really enjoying all the discussions about the definition of theatre and theatricality, especially since it's something I'm grappling with Right This Second. So here's my Dear Abby:

As you (maybe) know, I did a project with a friend that was a string of short plays intended to "interact" with improvisational music. Some writers engaged the experiment, and others admitted that they ignored the presence of the musicians entirely (in writing the piece and in performance-- this resulted in some unpleasant tension at times, as performers tried to shout over the music). The pieces that worked best, in my estimation, were those that 1.) acknowledged, were inspired by, and left room for the musicians as co-performers, and 2.) were simple in structure and execution. By simple, I mean that they had one or two characters, one or no props, and one dramatic event (mind you, these were five-minute plays).

I'm going somewhere with this, I swear.

So one of the plays was, perhaps, what one would term "theatrical". It used representational items to indicate other objects. A sheet was a sail and a river and a cloak. A blanket was blood. In the end, though, I don't think the audience walked away with a thing, aside from the novelty of seeing one thing stand in for another.

I'm feeling more and more exasperated by what feels like the indulgent use of theatricality as some sort of inside wink to ourselves, a way of patting ourselves on the back and saying we're doing something right. Of course, at the same time, I'm not interested in the photorealism of the kitchen sink and all that.

So what does that leave? I started reading submissions today for a new short play event I'm doing. It's plays set in a bar and also staged in a bar-- not breaking new ground here. But I keep finding in myself this drive to simplify. To strip a theatre event down, take it off a stage, figure out what exactly makes theatre theatre.

I'm just getting so tired and bored of theatre by and for the theatre crowd (which is the result, I think, not the intent). I feel like sometimes we get trapped by our own conventions.

The pieces I'm reading seem to be falling into two categories: either they're attempts at television-esque "realism" or... they just feel so "theatre". And I hate that I'm using that as an epithet. Maybe all the literary management work has made me ornery. Hm... I feel like there's a recognizable set of things we often do to signify "this is theatrical", and when these things are employed for the sole purpose of displaying "theatricality", it's empty.

(And no, I'm certainly not rejecting these techniques whole-cloth. I love 'em, too.)

So help me, Abby(s). We know that theatre is more than the sum of its gimmicks. The live act and community interaction-- yes, the core seems to be there. But how do we differentiate ourselves from other performing arts without isolating ourselves to the point of douchebaggery?

Melissa said...

PS, it occurs to me that I spoke too harshly about the playwright I mentioned, which is not a fair assessment. It just served as a recent example for me to draw upon. My frustration/anxiety/confusion is more general than specific.