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Remembering, Forgetting, Theatre

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 Leave a Comment

I want to write a little about how the scale of the way we remember and forget is changing in our culture, and what that might mean for theatre.

A few things recently caught my eye: the discovery and subsequently rapid spread of Vivian Maier's photography. Unknown as a photographer in her lifetime, John Maloof acquired her negatives at an antique auction. He discovered 30-40,000 stunning pictures, many of which had not even been developed. He has been putting her work online, and admiration for it has been rightfully spreading.

I happened upon Vivian's work via Twitter, around the same time that GeoCities and its 38 million user built pages disappeared (though efforts exist to preserve that information).

These two examples are a way of saying that because our culture can remember more deeply it can also forget more completely. We need to examine what this shift in cultural memory might mean to theatre and its role as carrier of cultural meaning. What is unique about the meaning theatre creates?

Saying a play isn't theatrical is like saying a Cabernet doesn't taste like grapes. But certain wines take advantage of the unique strengths of their terroir, and so it is worth considering what is unique in theatre's terroir. This is especially true now when our cultural meaning exists in a relentlessly evolving and expanding conversation online; when story is as common as air, and nearly as free; what essential meaning is left for theatre to carry?

Here are five aspects of theatre's terroir I've been thinking about lately:

1. Narrative Experience: This one is old as the hills, but worth remembering: theatre provides meaning that is irreducible from the experience of its story. In our current ocean of stories, this does not make it unique, however; and its cost in time and effort make this reason increasingly less persuasive.
2. Presence: Almost as old as Narrative Experience, the power of theatre "actually happening" has been held up like a talisman against film for years. Usually, it's simply stated that theatre is better because the actors can hear you, but why is that better? If a bad house decreases the quality of the playing (which happens), isn't it better to quarantine the art from outside influence?
Or, if the ability for the audience to affect the performance is important, shouldn't that make video games a more essential medium, where the audience's will is the performance? And for those who laugh at that, read this New York Times article about the next generation of video game designers who are dedicated to using what is unique about their medium to create meaningful art.
Yet any reckoning of what is unique about theatre must absolutely decide why presence is so important.
3. Four dimensions: Live performance exists in four dimensions, and while it's that third dimension that (unless you're wearing 3-D glasses) is the most noticeable difference between theatre and film, it's that fourth dimension that is most important. Film, breaking our experience of time's arrow, is the same played backwards and forwards (though perhaps harder to follow played backwards). You cannot reverse a play; the egg doesn't unbreak; the water doesn't pour itself back into the pitcher; this particular Hamlet will never speak of Ophelia's orisons in quite the same way again.
This is perhaps where Presence becomes important; the way we change the actor's performance as we both journey down the one-way street of time makes a theatrical performance significantly more like life than the two dimensional experience of film.
4. Multiple perception: In our recent interview with Rachel Cole at InDigest Magazine (not yet out), Lesser Seductions director Heather Cohn reminded me of something essential about all theatre that was especially true of our play. Theatre allows of a multiplicity of perception that is not possible (sorry, split screen) in quite the same way in film.
This is for two reasons: simultaneous action and symbolic potential. Because there is no camera to force an audience's eye, their particular journey through each moment of the play will be unique. In a play like The Lesser Seductions of History, where the characters' journeys mostly unfold at the same time, this is especially true.
Secondly, because theatre is not a literal medium (meaning that with film and video games, you are seeing the actual event, whereas with theatre, dance and the written word you are seeing a representation of an event), meaning can be created through the use of symbols. A light bulb dangling from a ceiling represents a year of the 1960's, and when lowered to the stage, becomes the circle of the moon. The light bulb has a literal meaning, and over time, accrues symbolic meaning as it is used to represent different things in The Lesser Seductions of History. And because everyone's imaginative response to these symbols will be so different, symbolic potential greatly increases multiple perception.
5. Adaptability: Theatre is a cockroach. Where film and video games need fancy equipment to exist, theatre exists anywhere there is a stage, someone walking across it, and someone watching (thank you, Mr. Brook).
Additionally, theatre adapts to the place and time where it is played, changing meaning like a chameleon blending in to fit its surroundings. The greatest plays are also the most adaptable; there is something in them that allows for so much multiplicity of meaning that they are not bound to their cultural time and place. Each group of audience and artists that plays a play shift the meaning to fit their our own unique needs of the moment, while at the same time engaging with the legacy of past productions.

SO! If you're still with me, the question remains: in a time where each evolving moment of cultural meaning exists online; and both factual and experiential knowledge are only a click away; and conversation happens across thousands of miles in real time; what does theatre have to offer?

Using the five aspects above, I think the four-dimensional narrative experience of a play, influenced by the mutual presence of artists and audience, creates a multiplicity of perception and adaptability of purpose that makes it an ideal vehicle for a particular kind of cultural meaning: the practice of human compassion.

Lofty? Not at all; poodle and chimpanzees do it. Like all social animals, they play to learn how to live together, and though we fancy ourselves infinitely more complex, the root need is the same. And because theatre remains the form of play closest to our experience of life, it remains essential.

So while I am thankful for the extraordinary powers of the internet (he says while blogging after all) to share information and foster conversation; I still believe that theatre is needed to pass on the compex cultural meaning of the practice of human compassion.