how canadian theatre is killing itself #2: storytelling, entertainment, and dangerous redefinitions of theatre

I’ve been thinking much about the conversations that sprung from my last essay and how to follow up on them. I finally settled on the format below, which is both a synthesis of the issues that came up in response to, and an expansion of, my last essay. I maintain and expand throughout my old premise: that Canadian theatre is killing itself, because we’re losing track of its essence, liveness. This loss of liveness—the direct, attentive relationship and mutual exchange between performer and spectator—is caused by two basic problems:

  1. The capitalistic structures (the business model) at the core of our Canadian theatres, which are turning performers into providers of goods and services and audience members into passive receptacles
  2. The rise of theatre as a specific type of “storytelling medium”—theatre’s development towards a form of entertainment, a kind of “live movie,” as opposed to a form that involves audiences actively through processes of collective meaning-making.

These two problems are inherently connected and must be examined together, as is becoming increasingly obvious the more time I spend on this topic.

In Canada, there’s been a loss of what I call “theatrical language”—the communicative tool that allows for an exchange and relationship between theatre artists and audience. This is a language of metaphor, allegory, juxtaposition, etc.—a language of theatrical poetry, operating on textual, visual, and auditory levels—which allows for space, agency and ownership on the part of the spectator in the construction of the story, through active processes of interpretation and independent meaning-making. Speakers of this theatrical language have been lost among both artists and audiences for a number of reasons, such as the capitalistic structures at the core of our theatres, as I explained last time. However, directly connected to these capitalistic structures, and also responsible, is what John Steppling* calls the “rise of marketing and hyper-realism,” our relationship with mass media, and the concurrent transformation of theatre into a very specific type of storytelling medium.

In brief terms, the rise of marketing, hyper-realism and mass media during the second half of the 20th century has implied an increasing use of single-layered, literal, heavily narrative-based, easily accessible modes of storytelling as we know them from popular soap operas, crime series, sitcoms, comedy and talk shows, movies, and even the news. This type of storytelling is virtually everywhere, on TV, the internet, movie theatres, billboards, and posters. We’ve been systematically trained, emotionally and intellectually, to watch this type of one-dimensional storytelling, and what’s worse, we’ve naturalized it—we’ve come to accept it as the norm of storytelling.

It has thus seeped into our theatres, where it’s wreaking havoc because it doesn’t work there—for a number of reasons. For one, theatre will never be as good at hyperrealism as film and TV is. We can’t produce the same kind of suspension of disbelief, and frankly, that’s never been the point of theatre anyway. Secondly, though theatre may also be about stories, narratives and the telling of them, it’s a collective experience, involving a live audience during the construction of the “story,” and must thus speak a different language than TV and film. As I’ve said many times, the essence of theatre is liveness—the direct, mutual exchange between artist and spectator—even more so in times when film is so easily accessible. In order to be truly live and alive, theatre must directly and actively engage its audience’s intellects and emotions; it must allow the audience to move and enlighten themselves, by allowing for interpretive processes, recognition, identification, and meaning-making on the part of the spectator. Therefore, theatrical storytelling requires greater depth and complexity—in other words, multiple layers of meaning on multiple levels. Indeed, it must provide a certain amount of opacity, disorientation, and intellectual and emotional difficulty.

The thing is, in order to work, theatre also requires a “conversation partner”—an audience that can and wants to decipher this theatrical language and is thus able to participate in the process. But right now, most of our theatres don’t even speak this language. They’re actually perpetuating the problem by offering increasing amounts of one-dimensional, literal storytelling. So, a subtle redefinition of “theatre” has taken place. Theatre in Canada has become first and foremost about the presentation of stories, not about a collective experience. This is a very dangerous trend—because this collective experience naturally has considerable political potency, which is now being eradicated from the theatre.

Why has this form of storytelling invaded our theatres? Why aren’t our theatres reclaiming their form? For one, because complexity and difficulty don’t sell as well, especially in times when audiences are trained to watch TV and are becoming increasingly less independent thinkers. Secondly—and this is key—our theatres are not only dependent on box office and government, but also on corporate sponsorship and private donations.

This type of safe, one-dimensional storytelling is popular among corporations and donors because it quintessentially qualifies as entertainment. By definition, entertainment panders explicitly to those in power by providing temporary relief and distraction from the system, through emotional purging caused by a superficial questioning of arbitrary themes and issues, often compiled under the umbrella term “the human condition.” Entertainment can easily be judged on the level of execution, i.e. based on how “moving” or “well-acted” or “clear” or “witty” or “gripping” it is because it is based on methodology and formulas.

Theatre, on the other hand—actual art—must be examined based on its degree of invention and intellectual, political, philosophical, emotional engagement and controversy. After all, art is about dissent—historically, theoretically, and practically. Theatre especially, as a collective art form, is about our relationship to, and existence within our environment—the space and time in which we exist, with others, during the process, the performance, and in the world. It is about our existence within, in relation to, and as part of, systems. Moreover, more than any other artistic form, theatre is about immediacy, about the here and now—the condition of the moment—on numerous levels, literally and metaphorically. This implies that theatre, more than any other art form, naturally and necessarily interrogates our current systemic condition as a collective.**

It is no surprise then that the vast majority of shows currently produced at our Canadian theatres, both at the institution and elsewhere, fall into the category of safe entertainment—presentations of stories—and as such do not qualify as theatre. Indeed, the easiest thing to find funding for these days is entertainment disguised as theatre, not only because it draws audiences, but also because it keeps the system free from potential dissent while allowing corporations, donors, and ultimately politicians to masquerade as supporters of “the arts.” We must understand that this is a form of censorship. It’s a vicious cycle that’s absolutely devastating for the form and keeps “the arts” apart from our communities and thus from our national fabric. It has turned theatre into the museum art form—the fetishized, zombie-esque charity case—it currently is. Art must not be dependent on charity, because charity is a type of privatization. It puts theatre at the mercy of the rich, turning it into their tool, as opposed to that of the people. ***

Clearly, we must think about this blurring of boundaries between entertainment and art, this colonization of the theatre. We must consider that our shows, only because they may have a director, actors and a live audience, are not necessarily theatre. For actual theatre requires—and is indeed defined by—the use of that language which allows for communion between artist and audience. We must understand that it actually harms the theatre to label forms of entertainment as “theatre,” because it causes another latent, subconscious redefinition—indeed a cooption—that renders obsolete the very basic condition upon which theatre is built, theatrical language. It renders obsolete its speakers on both sides, the artists and the audience, and thus diminishes the collective, political potency of the theatre, its identity as a democratic tool. Sometimes it feels like we’re moving backwards in time, returning to a pre-Brechtian, or perhaps even pre-Shakespearean era. After all, Shakespeare, who was conscious of his role in society, and who knew he was oppressed, was one of the best at using entertainment to his advantage, as a means to meet the ends of his art—precisely through the use of complex theatrical poetry.

Subtle shifts and redefinitions of theatre are taking place in the independent theatre scene too. Founding one’s own theatre company has become so massive a movement, a common type of recourse for many to produce their own work and increase their visibility, that it has transformed the indie scene into what looks like a kind of “hobby culture,” as John Steppling calls it. The sheer volume of people putting on shows with extremely meager means has provoked a kind of infantilization of the form, causing theatre’s reputation as a legitimate profession to suffer. This shift ultimately works in favor of the system, as withholding and cutting funding from people whose activities can so easily be mistaken for “hobbies” is easy. It’s easy to belittle the artistic, cultural, and national significance of this type of work, even if that’s unjustified, and even if it’s the direct, (and potentially intended) result of government’s own policies. DIY theatre is outing itself as a kind of convoluted capitalistic “artistic self-harm,” serving ultimately as a way of keeping the arts small.

Moreover, we must remember that the institution—those companies that have money, space, and resources—inadvertently model what “theatre” is, what “talent” is, what “sells,” and so forth. So, especially those young independent companies, whose motive for making indie theatre is also to gain exposure and perhaps even be picked up and hired by the institution, will not only be taught and influenced by, but also cater to, the very type of work that’s currently on offer at the institution. After all, they want and need to work—but this implies that they’re perpetuating the problems I’ve identified above. ****

So how might we tackle these issues? The first step of reforming and rectifying the theatre has got to be the development of a culture of societal, political consciousness and open, self-interrogative discourse that goes beyond the boundaries of the theatre community, to our audiences, to the people. This in turn presupposes a certain amount of looking outside ourselves—an overcoming of our current capitalistic hyper-individualism of “I want” and “I like.” This problem is bigger than “I;” it’s about democracy. Our theatre needs to finally become about itself. We need to seriously question its relevance or irrelevance—its existence within, in relation to, and as part of, the system. We won’t get around a serious discussion as artists, and a serious discussion with our audiences.

As for new economic models, the other day I came across something that made me think. In order to fund a new project, Neworld Theatre of Vancouver started a “Community Commission.” It used crowd funding as a tool to commission local artist Charlie Demers. Here’s what they have to say about the project:

“Last year, the City of Vancouver suspended its local residency/commissioning program. And so we’re looking to those in our community for help. […] We are asking our community to join Neworld Theatre in commissioning [Charlie Demers]. Shows can’t get made if people like Charlie don’t have time to write them. Dissent can’t be expressed if communities aren’t willing to stand up and invest in what they believe. We believe that our culture – what we choose to say together – is more valuable and more meaningful than the things we are told over and over again by the mass media. We think that’s important. And we hope you will, too.”

Of course it’s appalling that Neworld was forced to take these measures. But let’s face it; it also isn’t surprising. I think this model potentially contains a seed of the future. This funding strategy uses as its basis the idea that theatre is both for and by the people. It assumes that the community is a necessary starting point for the theatre to do its work. It sets up the basis for a mutual exchange between artist and spectator in the economics at the core of the show. In a way, it’s asking the people to give Neworld a kind of “tax” directly—one that the Canadian government simply doesn’t (and won’t anytime soon) spend on theatrical activity. The key is, in exchange, Neworld is offering dissent. It isn’t asking for charity to tell a story or make a show about x or y arbitrary topic; it explicitly offers to tackle the systemic, political issues of the community. And that is what art is about. Being an artist and making theatre comes with a societal mandate. It’s a democratic responsibility. That’s what Neworld is modeling here.

Obviously, these types of community commissions have limitations. But how far could we take this idea? What could it possibly turn into? There’s always going to be a certain degree of fighting over government funding for the arts. And that’s healthy, considering that art isn’t supposed to cooperate with government, but rather meant to function as an interrogator of government activity—a kind of society tracker. The thing is, we also have to participate in that fight. Part of our democratic mandate as artists is also to keep demanding what we need and want. And so, in a way, what constitutes Neworld’s last resort here is also a basic starting point, a way of taking charge. If anything, it’s a way to find out how many people out there are potentially still receptive to the basics of theatre, and it may be the first step of reclaiming the theatre from charity.

 

Stadttheater Freiburg, 2014

Stadttheater Freiburg, 2014

 

FOOTNOTES:

* I was made aware of John Steppling’s essay “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” just after I published my last article. Even though Steppling’s essay focuses on American theatre, much of what he discusses also applies to the Canadian context. I refer to Steppling throughout and strongly encourage you to check out his essay—it’s a riveting read and an incredibly important document.

** It has to, otherwise there’s no potential for recognition and identification on the part of the spectator—a crucial component of theatrical language and the collective experience.

*** The difference between art and entertainment is often disguised as a question of “different aesthetics.” This is a clever trick and fundamentally untrue. This problem is much bigger and much more complicated than a question of “mainstream” vs. “experimental” theatre. What might be the devastating psychological effects that this type of confusing, schizophrenic existence must be having on our theatre artists?

**** Of course, there are also those who’ve worked hard for years to constitute an actual alternative to institutional theatre—those who have given into the violent cooption of the theatre, who have accepted the death and loss of it, precisely by offering an alleged “substitute.” Unfortunately, this is a completely Sisyphean task, if audiences are elsewhere being systematically de-trained from watching theatre, even more so if you don’t have your own theatre space, and especially if you aren’t offering entertainment disguised as theatre.

 

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4 comments

  1. calla

    Excellent essay. Some well articulated thoughts here.

    I particularly appreciate your argument that the very “form” of our art, or media, or entertainment takes, perpetuates a certain way of being in the world. How our word is presented to us through various mediums, directly influences how we will receive these forms on intellectual, spiritual, psychological, physical, and emotional levels. For me, that is what is so dangerous about entertainment masquerading as theatre. The so-called “theatre” can become a vector for perpetuating unquestioned ideologies, morals and values of an economic and political social elite–ways of thinking and being in the world that powerful hegemonies would like to keep alive in order to subtly maintain and extend their deeply psychological power.

    calla

    p.s. I am ready to have a discussion, or attend a discussion about the state of theatre in Canada. In fact, I am not interested in making theatre without having this discussion first. I am also not sure I am interested in going to theatre without somehow re-thinking why I am there, and what the theatre practitioners want from me aside from my money…

    Like

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