More On Presence
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.
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.