More On Presence

Tuesday, December 15, 2009 Leave a Comment

Exhibit A: Your partner walks into your bedroom to find you watching porn on your computer. Your partner's reaction may be pissed off or turned on, or merely indifferent.

Exhibit B: Your partner walks into your bedroom to find you watching several people having sex on your bed. In this scenario, indifference seems less likely of an option.

Why? Presence.

And as silly as those exhibits are, understanding why that difference is important is essential to articulating why theatre is important. Is theatre important for what it is, or what it does? What seems like a semantic question is a little slipperier than that.

Two weekends ago at the Defining Diversity conference in DC, Taylor Mac talked about the nostalgia people have for their narratives, how difficult it is to let certain beloved narratives go. He was referring specifically to traditional narratives of marriage, but for me the question expanded to theatre itself.

Is theatre essential? Or is it just a beloved narrative that we're all hanging onto as (according to the most recent NEA study) our audiences dwindle and move on? Are arts practitioners, as Fractured Atlas Adam Huettler puts it, in the typewriter business? Typewriters now have nostalgic value for what they are, but have little value for what they do.

So if theatre is important for what it does, it may eventually be completely replaced by film, video games, or holograms; because if the good that theatre does can be mass distributed for less cost and greater good, theatre is a vehicle of nostalgia, and we are the last followers of Zeus.

But if theatre is important for what it is, that difference lives in Presence. And I think the difference between Exhibit A and B is that, while we're just watching in both, we are also participating in Exhibit B; because we're not witnessing an artifact indifferent to our existence, but participating in a shared moment, unique in time. Our watching matters.

Does it matter enough? Does that difference between A and B justify holding onto a medium manifestly less efficient than the media of mass distribution? Most of the traditional arguments for theatre completely ignore what it is in favor of what it does (education, local business enhancement, community building) ignoring that there may be many more cost effective ways for a community to accomplish those tasks. And when we do discuss Presence as essential, it usually is presented as an unquestionable virtue. Well, it is to us. We so love our nostalgic narrative of sacred theatre.

But that narrative is increasingly foreign to a culture where story is as free as air, and virtual connection only a click away. When our culture cares about Presence, it is usually celebrity Presence, which owes more to the power of other media than to theatre. The case for theatre as an enduring human activity can take many forms, but it must have this question of why Presence matters at the root.

Or we'll be left with Exhibit A, and go on clapping uncertainly at the end of movies.


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  • DNA said:  

    I guess my only hesitation is when you ask the question whether theatre is essential. As stated, the question doesn't make sense to me: Essential for what? While It's understandable that from the point of view of a performer or director committed to theatre it is indeed essential; I think the article he was referencing wasn't so much about any essential quality of theatre, but about the commitment, (and I use this word fully aware of how strange a word this is, but in this case I use it in the sense that suggests affect, that suggests love.) So I read in your love for theatre a commitment. Personally, I'm not beyond commitment, but I reserve it for people. I've only been able to commit to people. To commit to a medium, or an ideology or to a way of doing things brings up to me the other aspect of commitment, the one which suggests being trapped in an insane asylum, and while I can commit enough to get things done, (I think,) the phrase lifetime commitment to anything other than other humans is kind of terrifying to me. (I admit this fear makes me interested in more things I have the capacity to master, but this word is also not one I am able to understand unambiguously.)

    The point maybe lies in recognizing that theatre as we know it is a perfectly fine and often sublime way of sharing a narrative and that as such, it influences other mediums; almost like a taunt, a dare: "I dare you to affect an audience like theater does" So other mediums try, and often fail miserably. I'll speculate that what makes theater special is something I can only call "aura," it has an aura, an aura of immediacy, of something that's not mediated. Though, I would also argue that props, costume, and sets mediate our perception of a narrative just as special effects do in film. Yet a mime is able to invoke that mediation through a set of auxiliary gestures, gestures that define context while simultaneously defining text and subtext. The French shirt and the greasepaint are a bit nostalgic though...

    Basically I'm just reserved about the fact that you can reduce the affect of theatre to that sole factor just because it's the factor that other mediums lack. I hope, I think it's a lot more than that. Nostalgia isn't a preference but a bias, the belief that something is good just because it's been around for a long time. We all find comfort in familiarity, so maybe theater can benefit from trying to shake that comfort, to avoid that comfort zone, to keep looking for new zones, areas, ways, as flux does.

  • DNA said:  

    and about exhibit B:

    Yes, it would be hard to remain indifferent; but c'mon, you don't just walk into theater--I'd love to see that though--You choose to walk into a theater, you implicitly agree to be affected. Hence indifference isn't really an option there.

    Is theater being 'public' enough to expose itself to indifference?

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  • Unknown said:  

    Hey Gus, just wanted to say I loved this post.

    When I talk about how much I love theater, people get weird looks on their faces. they talk about how expensive it is. i can hear them thinking, "movies do everything theater does, but better."

    And I've never been able to articulate why i love theater so much. Exhibits A & B will be helpful in the future. Thanks.


  • Sabina E. said:  

    what a thoughtful post.

    also, I tell people that, unlike film, theatre is FREE and readily available anytime, anywhere in any way. You don't need money to build a set. You can simply grab a script (or write your own) and wander out onto the street or in a park and perform a piece. People will watch.

    Film, on the other hand, requires money and it's a certain sort of privilege that not everyone will have.

    Theatre will always be (and still is) essential in many parts of the world where there is no technology available. My filmmaker friend has been following an Indian theatre company which has been on the road, preaching social justice to poor Indians about police brutality and injustice. They are more likely to listen to the theatre company-- because of PRESENCE, like you said-- rather than pay attention to the moral messages of a film.

  • August Schulenburg said:  


    I would love to learn more about that Indian theatre company, and agree that presence of theatre becomes even more meaningful when connected to protest. You can burn a book or film to censor political art, but with live performance, the object of expression is the human body, making censorship an act of literal violence. I remember bringing a play about violence against woman to a particular college that so angered some of the male students they threw bottles, and I think part of that was they couldn't dismiss us as a message because we were actually there.


    I don't think that presence is the sole factor that makes theatre important(if not essential); but I do think it is a primary difference between other communal narrative art forms like film. And I love that sentence "I've only been able to commit to people".

    And thanks, Cameron!