Theatre Bay Area Chatterbox

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Is this theatre? Who gets to decide?

I'm in the midst right now of writing the third article in my series on community and theatre that's appearing in Theatre Bay Area magazine, following on the first two about physical spaces and neighborhoods (August) and diversity and demographics (September). This third piece is all about technology, and the new form of community that the web and other technologies has created in the world--a community that is increasingly popular for a wide swath of the population. And in particular it seems to be about where the boundaries of "theatre" really are.

So I was very interested to see this article that just appeared at, filed under the theatre section, about a communal bike ride with soundtrack. It sounds really cool, but it hit me in a particular way because it made me wonder: what is the essence of theatre, and when does something stop being theatre and move on to being something else? Is a group of avatars performing an original play in the virtual world World of Warcraft theatre? Is, as was recently written about in the Times, a show put on for an audience of one in which the audience member is pushed from one upsetting situation to another like a television station changing channels theatre? Is a bike ride with music theatre, if it's done by 50 people at once and is choreographed to use the city as the actor?

In my interviews for this piece so far, there's been a throughline, particularly with artists, that theatre can be so much more than it is without losing its specialness. I've heard people argue that there are, in fact, very few requirements for a piece of theatre: it doesn't need a specific space, it doesn't even really need actors, or a script, or even the realization that you're seeing theatre. And at the same time, there's an overtone of "theatre is, somehow, fundamentally different." It's not TV, it's not film. Finding that balance, especially as we start wandering into cyberspace not just to market but to make and present work, is difficult--and even more so when, as with Joyride, the show referenced in the piece, trappings of a digital world, gaming, music, synchronicity across personal universes, comes back into the physical space and challenges the traditional work being made today.

What do you think? What is theatre, what isn't? Who judges? Does it matter?

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Monday, August 2, 2010

10 Lessons the Arts Teach

The National Art Education Association has created a top-10 list for why the arts matter -- and it's interesting to parse the arguments the document makes.

Of the 10 lessons:
- none is an economic argument
- 3 (#4, 6 and 7) are essentially about thinking critically
- 3 (#2, 3 and 9) are essentially about empathy
- 2 (#1 and 10) are essentially about the ability to make judgments
- 2 (#5 and 8) are about learning nonliteral concepts

This document is an incredibly valiant attempt to illustrate the intangible value of the arts, but in a lot of ways I'm afraid it wanders into the same traps that we often do. It traffics in generalities, highlighting words like "ABILITY," "VIVID," and "POETIC CAPACITIES" (yes, they really used all caps) instead of stripping back the language to talk about what's really at the core. The concepts underlying the items are solid--the arts teach children to address situations from multiple perspectives and therefore think critically, empathically and soundly--but relying on nonspecific flow-y language isn't going to get us there.

My English teacher in high school (the best, most ruthless editor I've ever had), always said that behind every frilly phrase is a void where a specific fact should be. Perhaps this is why first-person testimonials are so the rage right now, because they allow the simultaneous demonstration of the power of art on a specific and nonspecific level.

One of the goals of the intrinsic impact study we're working on is to try and standardize and make more concrete some of these giant concepts that get dressed up in adjectives and trotted about--so that we can walk into a room with a legislator who is trying to cut our budgets and say, yes, here, on this graph, is what our art is doing to the minds of young people. Here's proof that they're thinking in a way they've never thought before, here's proof that they're seeing the world from a perspective other than their own. In the meantime, swanky flyers like this one will get us some of the way down the road--I just hope that we're not shooting ourselves in the foot with miles to go.

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