[This is the first in this week’s series on the difference between contemporary theatre and what came before. These ideas lead to the larger argument I’m making, however if you are not a theatre person, it’s ok. I’ll get back to broader topics next week with the discussion on how the two sides of our brain have created culture through time.]
If you want to express truth, it’s best not to start with a lie. Most theatre today starts with a series of lies. It’s become what we now know as Theatre.
It could be said, that the function of theater is to express truth. A big statement. You might ask: “What is truth?” Or, imagine me as Rodin’s “The Thinker” statue pondering the nature of truth. While I want to avoid an “I’ll know it when I see it” excuse, theater, like all art and entertainment, should connect to something that is real, right and true in our bellies, a feeling in our guts.
(Please accept that statement for now. I’m a couple of months of writings away from discussing the nature of truth. This blog is on a long road of short leaps.)[i]
The problem is that most theater experienced today begins with a certain set of lies. When the actor walks on the stage and pretends the audience is not there, it is essentially a lie. When the actor denies that we’re in the theater, it is essentially a lie. The setting might be Elsinore or the streets of New York, but the actor is playing before an audience in a theater. The story might take place in 1932, but it's being played now in 2012. When the actor walks on stage and leaves her life experience and humanity back in the green room, it is essentially a lie. Any acting style that suggests the actor and the character are not entwined is a lie. While a performance of this play last night, tonight is different. All of the words may be spoken in the same order and the actors try to play the play as it was rehearsed, but this night/this audience/this actor make it a different show/a different experience. When a theater actively avoids, ignores or pretends the goings on are not happening in that moment in a theater, the theatre is beginning with a lie.
Theatre hasn’t always been like this. The Classical Theatre (roughly any Western Theatre prior to 1890 or 1642, you pick) constantly acknowledged that the actors and audience were in a theatre together for the re-creation of a story, for an argument, for an entertainment. In every play Shakespeare reminds the audience that they are in a theatre, watching a play on the stage, played by players. He also makes the comparison between the players on the stage and the audience’s lives as players in their own dramas. [This is the topic of my next post in this series: How Theatre Changed.]
(Warning: My next statement will seem contrary to my argument thus far. I’m putting together a big thought. Or I’m living in alternate universes. It’s hard to tell.)
The actor believing in the world of the play while pretending to not be in a theatre or ignoring the audience is true to the context of theatre. It is what theatre is. This “suspension of disbelief” is at the center of the game that is theater. Therefore, what I previously called lies are actually true. More true than the truth.
Theatre is by nature a paradox. Two opposite realities are both true at the same moment. The actor is both a living breathing actor and the character she is portraying. Something wonderfully alchemical happens. The actor and the character combine on such a level that it's not so much that they're the same but that the distinction between them dissolves. This happens when the space between the actor and the characters reduces to the point that the question: Is it the actor or the character saying the line or performing the action? becomes unnecessary to the point the question itself ceases to make sense.[ii]
The theater actually becomes the walls of Elsinore, the plains of Dover or a kitchen in the Bronx, not really, but it does. It feels like it. The actor might say: “I am an actor. I am the character. I'm in the theater. I'm in some setting. I'm in this now. I'm in that time. There is an audience. I am alone.” It is a paradox because: This and this are in conflict with each other. They can't exist at the same time. They can’t both be true at the same time. And yet in the theater they do.
This complementarity, as it would be expressed in quantum physics, is at the heart of theater and yet it is lost and unknown to most contemporary theatre. Complementarity is when objects have multiple properties that are seemingly contradictory. (The classic example is that an electron can appear to act like a wave or a particle depending on the observer. It is both at the same moment.) It’s like being in two different universes at the same moment. The very rules of existence are opposite.
The problem with most contemporary theatre is that it ignores and negates the world of the theater to emphasize the world of the play removing the alchemy of complementarity.
In this case, I’m defining the “world of the play” as the characters, time, and setting of the play. It is the reality that the play creates. An example: The world of the play Julius Caesar would be Rome of 33 B.C. when Julius Caesar was killed in the Capital by Brutus and the conspirators. It is the world of the play. This is not the same as the “world of the theater,” such as when the play premiered in the Globe Theatre in London one afternoon in 1600 with the actor Richard Burbage playing Brutus before an audience of Londoners. This is the world of the theater.
If I were to produce the play today in Los Angeles, the world of the theater would be this time in this place with these actors and this audience of Angelinos. The situation of our now is vastly different from the Elizabethan world. By acknowledging the now of the world of our theater, the play and production are brought into this now and become relevant to us.[iii]
Beginning over a hundred years ago, there was a move to make the theatre more realistic. Acting techniques such as Stanislavsky’s Method, production design and the advent of the “fourth wall” were developed to make the world of the play more real for the audience. The audience was relegated to being observers rather than participants. The emphasis shifted from the world of the theatre to the world of the play. [For more on this, please read my post on the shift to realism in the theatre, coming with this series]
With this change theatre lost the actor-audience relationship and the experience of the moment. We lost what essentially makes theatre theatre. We became more like film and abdicated the experience of the moment to sports, rock concerts and comedy clubs. [Please read the third post in this series: The Actor-Audience Relationship.]
We also lost our ability to express deeper truth because we denied the most essential truth of theatre, that it is happening in the moment, in the relationship between the actors and the audience. The audience knows intuitively that we are asking them to embrace a lie. To participate they must become complicit in our lie. Whether we are telling a simple truth of a man’s journey to the grocery to buy bread and milk or a collective truth that our country was founded by religious extremist or the complex truth of how to live in our time, essential truth cannot be expressed and received.
If we are to understand and embrace our new and changing time, if theater is to become viable and necessary again, we need the theatre to begin with the truth that we are all, the actors and the audience, in a theatre to experience the creation of a story about life.
By doing so, we will return to the alchemy of the being in the world of the play and the world of the theatre simultaneously. This is vital because that experience of duality most closely represents the truth of our new world. How can we understand and embrace the dualities of time (time is linear vs. time is simultaneous and relative), matter (things, including ourselves, are solid and finite vs. the physical world is construct that we accept when matter is truly only moving energy) or community (we are isolated individuals separate from others vs. we integrated and deeply connected to every other person and thing) unless the theatre teaches us how to navigate this experience.
We go to the theatre to be in a theatrical relationship with theatre artists. By acknowledging the truth that we are in a theater, we will begin to express one of the real challenges of our time: how two opposite experiences can both be true at the same time. To understand the very nature of the complementarity of our world, we need to experience it in the venue that teaches us best how to live because it is a re-creation of life: Theatre.
[i] Shakespeare employs parenthetical comments in his text. When I teach the structure of the verse, we walk the punctuation to understand how it makes the argument. The only way I can explain a parenthetical comment is by walking it. Let’s say you’re walking along making an argument. It has twists and turns (commas, periods, colons and semicolons). Then you come upon a parenthetical statement: one that has an open parenthesis mark “(“ to begin and a closed parenthesis mark “)” at the end. You must stop, step to the side of your argument, make the comment about your argument to the audience, and then step back into the path of your argument to continue. A parenthetical comment is a remark on your argument. I seem to comment on my argument all of the time when I talk, so I have to do it when I write.
[ii] When I was teaching this in Acting I, the dialogue would go like this:
Carey: What are you feeling?
The Actor: Do you mean me or the character?
Carey: Yes. (I would answer annoyingly)
The Actor: Yes, but, which one?
Carey: Both. What you’re feeling is what the character is feeling. And what the character is feeling is what you’re feeling. They are the same thing. You can’t act and divorce yourself from the character.
The Actor: harrumph. (Or, some sound like that.)
At Shakespeare and Company where I trained, they would call this relationship between the actor and the character: Basic. It is the first thing that is taught in the training program. Dennis Krausnick, Director of Training and one of my mentors, would describe it as this: The goal is the space between you (he would put up his left hand) and the text (he would put up the right hand), becomes so close that the space between the two would dissolve (he would bring his two hands together).
[iii] The current trend to set Shakespeare plays and others in setting/times disassociated from either the setting/times of the play or the now of the production adds in third layer. It can increase the complexity and experience of multiple times, though it usually further distances the relationship to now and/or distorts the connection to the real of the play. I’ll write more about this soon.