And there are those times that we treat it, the theatre, the thing that we all love so much that we sacrifice sleep and money and relationships with other human beings for it; there are times we treat it like a patient with an illness we cannot identify but we are all more or less in agreement that the condition is terminal. Indeed, the prognosis has always been poor, it has surely been dying since the moment it was born (but aren’t we all, pipes up the chief resident with half-sincere optimism, and the rest of the cohort chuckle with half-sincere cynicism). So we check in periodically with the patient, ask it how it feels and then tell it how it is doing.

I’m saying all this as prologue to something I need to articulate. I’m not quite there yet.

Last week was a nationwide conference call, of sorts, on the state of the American Theatre in general, extrapolated from the state of the New American Play. Centered at Arena Stage in Washington DC and engaged remotely via Twitter and NEWPLAY TV, the conversation weaved a number of challenging threads. It also unsheathed a knife or two and used them to gouge open a few shiny cans of squishy, glistening worms.

I spent this past Saturday morning in the back row of the Zacek McVay Theater at Victory Gardens, overlooking approximately 20 artistic directors, literary managers, and other artists from a range of small, mid-size, and large Chicago theaters. I was there in a capacity of judicious stenographer, managing the Twitter feed for the League of Chicago Theatres, noting and quoting in short bursts what I felt were some of the more profound statements being made both on the live feed from DC and among the people in the room with me.

It was a bit like working on the catering staff at a friend’s wedding, which sounds like a bitter complaint but isn’t. I was glad to be in the room, glad for the discussions that occurred and for what I heard spoken by theatre practitioners at various stages of their careers. Every so often I found a moment to pipe in my own thoughts on the topics at hand…I was able to stop serving the chicken and fish, and go hug the bride and shake the hand of the groom. It was all lovely, understand, but it would have been nice if I’d also had more opportunity to dance with a bridesmaid.

I’m writing this post, as I mentioned, to articulate something, a something I clumsily spoke from the back of the room, a something I wished I’d been able to speak instead through my fingertips, which are ever the part of my body most fluent in my brain.

It comes up, frequently, that one of the weaknesses of our chosen medium is its lack of timeliness, its inability to respond immediately. It came up on Saturday in DC when Eric Ting, associate artistic director of New Haven’s Long Wharf Theatre, asked us how we as theatre artists respond to the ongoing turmoil in Egypt. And there was a murmur of assent, and resignation, that rippled through rooms across the country: yes, that is a problem and damned if there’s any way to fix that.

Except there is. Because that’s not really broken. What’s askew is not theatre’s ability to respond but what theatre practitioners consider to be theatre.

We already know that theatre has the ability to respond immediately because we have late-night talk shows. Jay, Conan, Dave, Craig, Jimmy, Jon, Stephen: they do this on a daily basis. We forget because we’re watching on TV, because the live studio audience seems to us to be part of the show. To the live studio audience this is not television; it is theatre that somebody a hundred thousand miles behind them is also watching once-removed; we eavesdrop on somebody else’s experience and mislabel it through our own perception.

Listen: theatre is this. A storyteller tells a story to an audience while sharing the same space. The storyteller may have several voices or no voice at all. The story may convey a complete plot, or a complete character, or a complete emotion. The audience listens. The audience responds. The story ends. Theatre does not require two acts, 90 minutes, costumes, lights, sound, props, set, seating, programs. It does not require two years of round-table workshop and several million dollars worth of ramshackle stunt rigging.

It is a blessing that we have these things. We do not need them to have theatre. This is the true and unique power of the art form–it was born when all we had was humanity and it will die only after the second-to-last human being does. I doubt a copy of the script exists anywhere, much less was ever written down, but I’m fairly sure that one of the first plays ever performed was titled I Killed This Creature and Ate It.

If you are that compelled to respond to something happening right now, then respond to it right now.

Don’t ask yourself if you can afford to rent the space, if you can get the marketing strategy in order and whether you can get the awards committee to come see it. Take whatever pulsing, color-cycling energy is pushing at the inside of your skin and turn it into text, turn it into movement, turn it into a hammer and a nectarine and a furious drumming on the corner mailbox with a pair of restaurant chopsticks. Find one person unable to give you a dime but willing to pay you the precious gift of their attention. Show them the world and show them your reaction to it.

Is it good theatre. Is it profitable theatre. Is it award-winning, critically-acclaimed, career-making, colleague-impressing, grant-worthy theatre.

I don’t know. Maybe not.

But is it theatre.

Yes. Good god, yes.

Nobody goes into theatre for the money, we say, after years of making next to none. It’s a joke because it’s true; it’s a truth because it’s true. And there are myriad reasons that we do go into theatre–sex, friendship, family tradition–but the only reason we stay in theatre is to make theatre. If that isn’t true, then why are we there?

A single minute of blazing self-expression in front of any live audience is a work of legitimate theatre. Accept that, and you’ll find that the art form is more robust than you previously imagined.

  • February 2, 2011