Church of Want

Thursday, February 7, 2008 Leave a Comment

Or a church of need. Or maybe a church of desire, if people completely forget that's a Bon Jovi song. Or even if they don't.

What am I talking about? Well, just lately a bunch of posts from other bloggers have me thinking hard of why I do theatre and what kind of theatre I want to do. When Flux as a company gets to talk about these questions, its usually at our annual retreat, and with our last retreat full of busy preparation for the here and now, those big simmering questions were only glanced at and glided over. Though maybe those questions are best answered through the plays we develop and produce, and not through endless question and answer.

Regardless, I had a break through here inspired by Jeffrey Jones' use of the words "Fundamental constituents of theatre", which he calls human behavior. But I think human behavior is not the atom (or quark) of theatre; rather, it is human action. Suit the action to the word, not the word to the behavior. And what separates action from behavior? Need, desire, want. And what is the cause and the result of action? Change.

Action=Change=Need, bound together by some unseen force like the nucleus of an atom; the ceaseless cause of each other like some nuclear reaction. Something changes, causing me to need, causing me to act, causing you to change, causing you to need, and so on we go.

And because the time in a play is compressed the way gravity compresses gas into a star; our action=change=need must also be compressed; must have enough vital energy to matter.

Heather and Christina and I were recently working on Other Bodies, and time and again, when a scene wasn't working, it wasn't working because I as playwright had lost sight of action=change=need. My characters weren't acting on desire, or the desire was too weak to matter. It's just that simple. When you find the human need, the action comes, the change happens, and the play gets interesting again.

And like DNA, this a=c=n can be the building blocks of vastly weird beings; plays with too many arms or not enough eyes or wings or all purple; but as long as the plays have desire coded into their DNA, they are living things. Without a=c=n, no cleverness in the world is enough to put air in its lungs. With a=c=n, the wildest and most imaginative stage languages are possible.

Because if a character's desire is compressed theatrically enough to matter, the language they use will of necessity express itself in fascinating ways; it will have to be verse; they'll break into song; they'll need to waltz; they'll desire three minutes of pure silence; the size of their desires truly followed will manifest itself in the language of theatre, until the language itself needs something. The language of the play, both aural and visual, will itself need, will itself act, will itself change.

And that language of need will itself infect the themes of the play with want; these themes will not be simple spoon fed morals; but restless gut-stewing middle of the night ahas and gone agains; will be as restlessly changing as the characters and stage languages that caused them to spark to life.

Because we have grown up on Stanislavski we've become immune to the power of his ideas; like a penicillin losing its power against a virus from overuse. But the idea of action=change=need as the DNA of theatre is as young as the Poetics and the Advice to the Players. The word action, and the need beneath it and thenchange that follows it, is at the heart of all great theatre; and is as new as the first time every time it is truly played.

Change, flux, you can never step in the same river twice.
Action to the word, word to the action.
Need, want, desire.

So why a church? Well first and most obviously, they are both communal spaces. And as such, they can only and ever be local, no matter what distant masters they claim to serve, when a theatre or a church matters, it matters because it is speaking to the number of people who fit in the pews.

But because a church (or whatever word for a sacred communal space you prefer) uses a shared ritual to commune with something divine. In theatre, that divinity becomes those shared mysteries of why and how and what else. But what shared rituals does theatre have to commune with those mysteries? Human desire. Human action. Human change. The ritual act of representing our actions, our desires, and how we change.

But that's just where I am today. Tomorrow I'll be somewhere else.

2 comments »

  • JJW said:  

    i think this poses some really interesting ideas. and it makes me think of the converse: maria irene fornes would argue that theatre is not made up of action/need/want, but a series of transformations. she made the joke (and i'm paraphrasing) that the only people she knew that went around wanting and pursuing things all the time were thieves and criminals, and who would want to be in a room with them anyway... :)

  • Johnna Adams said:  

    I love the post, Gus. I don't see a conflict between "theater of transformation" and "theater of need" myself. Need/Action/Want is always a desire for transformation-- and so the ideas are linked in my mind and not at all mutually exclusive. I think you could probably develop a really strong rewriting exercise around this idea.