“It is the lack of the experience of the imagery of real art, partly substituted and parodied by the ready-made stereotypes of the amusement industry, which is at least one of the formative elements of the cynicism that has finally transformed the Germans, Beethoven’s own people, into Hitler’s own people.”
– Theodor W. Adorno (see here)
I’ve come across a couple of issues, literally overnight, that I find quite disconcerting. As you might have read here, I’ve been pondering the difference between art and entertainment. Or, more specifically, I’ve been thinking about the increasing commodification and entertainmentization of theatre, which has resulted in the loss of theatre’s essence: liveness—the mutual exchange between artist and spectator, which allows for a politically potent, democratic, collective experience. Disconcertingly, theatre has transformed into a presentational medium that tells (and sells) stories.
Perhaps as a result of this trend (?), the folks at Playwrights Theatre Centre in Vancouver have been thinking lots about audience interactivity lately. They’re organizing a panel discussion about it, inviting experts from the video gaming industry to get their take on “interactivity.” In light of these activities, they posted a BBC podcast to their Facebook page, which examines the UK’s interactive theatre scene. You might have heard of Punchdrunk, YouMeBumBumTrain, Artichoke, and other companies who stage interactive shows in non-traditional, site-specific venues.
The thing about this BBC podcast is that it features one theatre critic who criticizes these “shows ,” or at least aspects of them, as “low-level fascism.” And for that he is more or less subtly ridiculed by the speaker, made to look throughout the report like a kind of “party pooper.” I felt that his impression of these events should be taken seriously, even if (or maybe precisely because) it seemed like a gut-type reaction. A bit of research into these types of shows reveals that their success is based on a) giving orders to, and commanding spectators, b) swearing spectators into secrecy, c) causing a profound sense of disorientation by ambushing spectators in the dark, and d) extreme exposure to violence and sex. All of these factors evidently combine to produce a kind of emotional catharsis and false sense of community among the audience. So. Suddenly “low-level fascism” doesn’t seem so crass a choice of words anymore. And the names “punch-drunk,” and “art-i-choke” are beginning to take on a different, suspect sound. Shame on the BBC for such one-sided, uncritical journalism, and for mockingly marginalizing that lone dissenting critic. What a travesty of theatre criticism. Yikes. So here’s what I said to PTC on Facebook:
“From what I can tell, the paternalism and transgression he’s experienced as part of these events could indeed qualify as a type of ‘low-level fascist’ herding—especially in connection with the type of emotional purging and exposure to violence that seems to be at play [in these events]. In my opinion, our craving for this type of visceral, immersive experience (which some call ‘theatre’) is in part caused by our desensitization towards violence through mass media. These types of performances could just be another outlet for our insatiable desire for suspense and sensationalism, thus acting as a kind of extension of the media and its agenda. I don’t see any room for, or goal of, societal critique or transformation here. It’s rather the opposite, I’d say. It seems to me that this type of performance is capitalizing on, and pandering to, our desensitization and desires, not problematizing them. So yes, this type of site-specific theatre does then indeed qualify as a kind of neo-fascistic amusement park pornography that’s somehow appropriated the term ‘theatre’ for its purposes.”
This morning I had received a response from PTC’s Community Engagement Coordinator, Alice Honiqin. She first makes a few remarks about fascism, but what really matters is what she says about theatre and entertainment (in bold):
“(…) I think you made a distinction in your comment between what seems to me as entertainment versus theatre. Theatre may be entertaining but it should have room for societal critique and potential transformation. In that case, I think the answer to the question of It’s Fun but Is it Theatre? is probably no it’s not. Still, I’m not sure that audiences know explicitly that theatre is not simply another form of entertainment. Interactivity in theatre may be a tool to increase audience engagement from those who are looking for a different type of entertainment experience as participants rather than viewing audience members (although their reactions as viewers already influence actors’ performances) (…).”
Alice makes a crucial point: our audiences do not know the difference between theatre and entertainment. As Adorno suggests above, that alone is deeply disconcerting. Our audiences can’t tell the difference between art, which interrogates and problematizes the system, and entertainment, which panders to it. Admittedly (and paradoxically), this line has become almost indiscernibly fine and blurry. After all, politics have turned into a movie, featuring Rob Ford as crack-smoking protagonist, and theatre has turned into a wishy-washy story machine.
How have we as artists, the interrogators and imaginers of society, let it get this far? Do we ourselves still know the difference of art versus entertainment? Do we understand that we’ve been coopted by the same forces who run the media? Do we realize that we’re being used for their purposes, acting as an extension of their agenda? Do we understand that these types of events contain neo-fascistic attributes and capitalize on our carnal desires without problematizing them? Do we understand that people are partaking in this, potentially thinking they’re enjoying theatre, an event that’s supposed to have cultural and societal value?
Ironically, some pop artists today have more in common with Shakespeare than we do. They comprehend the system in which they’re operating and they’re using it to their advantage. They’ve found ways of using their highly commodified form to put forth their own artistic agenda. There is more interesting, important, and valuable art happening in pop music right now than there is in theatre, because we’re too slow in realizing and practicing our position and mandate. What an embarrassment.
But it gets worse. This morning, I also awoke (literally and metaphorically) to a new comment on my first article. In an attempt to “save” the theatre, the commenter is suggesting—or rather resorting to—a number of measures, which qualify as deeply disconcerting. You can find the whole comment at the bottom of this, but for the purposes of this discussion, I’m only posting a few parts here:
“[…] 3. Produce dirty, fast, and often. […] 5. Sunday school is the most successful guerrilla education program in American history. Steal it. People with young children should be able to show up and drop their kids off with some young actors in a rehearsal room for two hours of theater games. The benefits: First, it will be easier to convince the nouveau riche (many of whom have young children) to commit to season tickets. Second, it will satisfy your education mission (and will be more fun, and therefore more effective, for the kids). Third, it will teach children to go to the theater regularly. And they’ll look forward to the day they graduate to sitting with the grown-ups. Getting dragged to the theater will shift from punishment to reward. […] 7. Build bars. Alcohol is the only liquid on earth that functions as both lubricant and bonding agent. Exploit it. Treat your plays like parties and your audience like guests. Encourage them to come early, drink lots, and stay late. Even the meanest fringe company can afford a tub full of ice and beer, and the state of regional- theater bars is deplorable: long lines, overpriced drinks, and a famine of comfortable chairs. Theaters try to “build community” with postplay talkbacks and lectures and other versions of you’ve spent two hours watching my play, now look at me some more! You want community? Give people a place to sit, something to talk about (the play they just saw), and a bottle. As a gesture of hospitality, offer people who want to quit at intermission a free drink, so they can wait for their companions who are watching act two. Just take care of people. They get drinks, you get money, everybody wins. Tax, zoning, and liquor laws in your way? Change them or ignore them. Do what it takes. 8. Boors’ night out. You know what else builds community? Audience participation, on the audience’s terms. For one performance of each show, invite the crowd to behave like an Elizabethan or vaudeville audience: Sell cheap tickets, serve popcorn, encourage people to boo, heckle, and shout out their favorite lines. (“Stella!”) The sucky, facile Rocky Horror Picture Show only survives because it’s the only play people are encouraged to mess with. Steal the gimmick. […] 9. Expect poverty. Theater is a drowning man, and its unions—in their current state—are anvils disguised as life preservers. Theater might drown without its unions, but it will certainly drown with them. And actors have to jettison the living-wage argument. Nobody deserves a living wage for having talent and a mountain of grad-school debt. Sorry. 10. Drop out of graduate school. Most of you students in MFA programs don’t belong there—your two or three years would be more profitable, financially and artistically, out in the world, making theater. Drama departments are staffed by has-beens and never-weres, artists who might be able to tell you something worthwhile about the past, but not about the present, and certainly not about the future. Historians excepted—art historians are great. If things don’t turn around, they may be the only ones left.”
Paradoxically, the commenter is applying an American-Dream-type business rationale to his strategy for saving the theatre. But isn’t that the kind of logic that’s driven theatre to where it is now? Regardless—what’s most troubling about this account is that, at their core, some of these ideas could potentially be useful to consider, but a kind of economic, spiritual, and artistic desperation has driven them to such extremes that they can’t be trusted as democratically safe. These thoughts suggest that in order to save the theatre, we need to employ a latent coercion and manipulation of the masses, reminiscent of those at play in the interactive theatre events in the UK, described by that one critic as “low-level fascist.” Not in any way do the thoughts by this commenter aspire to democratic ideals; instead, they’re guided by the deeply cynical assumption that the people are will-less, stupid, and need to be tickled—not that they need to be respected as independent individuals. And this commenter is talking about the theatre, the artistic home of the collective experience—of democracy! These are dangerous sentiments. Our job is not to capitalize on, and exploit people’s passivity by providing transgressive violence and pornography or parties and booze; it’s the opposite—it’s to awaken them, to confront them with their position and agency in, and as part of, a collective. What on earth is the point of theatre if it doesn’t interrogate and critique the way we’ve become, here, now and as part of a system? Any type of theatre, and especially anyone who’s thinking about “interactivity” in the theatre, needs to keep that in mind! Ask yourselves: WHY do we feel the need for more interactivity and community in the theatre? Is there a lack of it? If yes, where does that lack come from? What is our mandate as theatre artists and how does it relate to strategies of interactivity? What does interactivity mean in the theatre? We must remember that the theatre has been coopted for malicious political purposes before. This is not to be taken lightly.
Back to Adorno and his warning. What is the relationship between our experience of art and entertainment, cynicism, and the rise of (neo-)fascism? How cynical have we become, and in what type of political danger does that put us? In what relationship do art and entertainment stand today? What is happening to us artistically and politically? Perhaps an analysis of our theatre could serve as an indicator for the state of our democracy?
I so hope that you are not yet too cynical to consider the seriousness of this situation. We have to wake ourselves up. The images in this post are of the Holocaust Memorial in Berlin, which is a symbolization—a kind of architectural re-enactment—of the dangers inherent in losing perspective of where one stands, personally and politically. It also symbolizes how easy it is to get dragged into, and lost in a system.
This morning on the tram, an elderly man sat across from me and got up suddenly when it pulled into a stop:
“When I don’t think I forget,”
he mumbled as he shuffled towards the door, shaking his head in self-dismay. “That’s wise,” I thought. We have to keep thinking.