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 nytimes.com, 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 nytimes.com 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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15 Comments:

At August 24, 2010 at 12:02 PM , Blogger Jonathan Bender, MS, MFA said...

A wonderfully incendiary question! I view this as having two different answers. First, what do theater professionals view as theatre - and secondly, what do *audiences* perceive as theatre, and what attracts them to see a performance?

For better or worse, many people who have little to no interest in attending theatre that's labeled as such would be quite interested in attending events that bear a different moniker - and vice-versa. As well, movement-based theatre, or various dance-theater hybrids, can get reviewed by critics who don't fully understand how they can work together well, leading to misunderstanding in the public eye.

My theatre company's mission is to make theatre more accessible and relevant to people who don't ordinarily attend - and then bring them back into the theatre for somewhat more traditional performances. Our latest project, The ChatRoulette Show (http://www.chatrouletteshow.com), is a participatory live variety show with an online/Web 2.0 component. Would I personally label it to be theatre? Well, is improv theater? (It's quite improvisational.) We roughly call it a "performance event," but this is an imperfect, clunky title.

In my opinion, it boils down to what will draw people in, as well as what encourages experimentation, while retaining some semblance of form. Or is the latter essential? Theatre is the only art form whose dominant style has remained fairly unchanged for over 100 years. Need we stick somewhat closely to that style in order to utilize the term?

Jonathan Bender
Artistic Director, The Illuminated Theater

 
At August 24, 2010 at 12:42 PM , Blogger jessica said...

Well, as Peter Book famously said in The Empty Space: "I can take an empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged."

In this definition, theater is the act of witnessing the action of another in time and space. I think the idea of being "witnesses" by another is integral to understanding what theatre is. The word theater is derived from the Greek word theatron which was where the ancient Greeks sat to view a performance. It means "the seeing place."

In order for it to be theatre, it needs to seen, observed, witnessed in time/space with an audience and performer. It can be for an audience of one or thousands. As for whether that audience needs to be aware that it IS an audience for it to be theatre, that is up for debate and I am not sure I know either way.

I do think that theatre needs a FRAME (which can merely be your eyes selecting where your focus is directed) in which to understand what we are seeing. It is this frame that enables us (the audience) to find meaning. So in that empty space, a man walks through and someone watches and interprets his actions to MEAN something. It is this interpretation that makes it theatre.

Christopher Herold, a wonderful director and teacher has said "Theatre is the attempt to organize the chaos of human experience into meaningful patterns." That to me, is what theatre ultimately is. It takes place in space (conventional or unconventional), with actors (artistic or social) who are DOING something (ANYTHING), and is observed by witnesses who interpret it to mean SOMETHING about our human experience. And by that definition, theatre is ALL around us all the time.

Jessica Holt
Artistic Director, Threshold and Three Wise Monkeys
Adjunct Faculty, West Valley College

 
At August 24, 2010 at 4:18 PM , Blogger Carl Benson said...

Poll results were interesting, and appear to jibe well with Jessica's idea - namely that a performance needs to be witnessed by an audience.

I think the only point of Jessica's I disagree with is that the person witnessing the performance needs to be in the same physical space as the performers. For example, the Metropolitan Opera has been simulcasting some of their bigger productions live to movie theaters around the country - obviously this is opera, but I think if a theater did the same thing (I'm sure this has already happened) I can't see a reason not to call that theater as well. Same goes for someone watching a live stream of the SF Improv Fest for example - why shouldn't that be called theater?

Also think Mr. Bender makes an excellent point when he notes that "Theatre is the only art form whose dominant style has remained fairly unchanged for over 100 years." To me, this sounds like serious cause to experiment with the form and push the limits of what theater can be.

Ultimately, people's definitions of theater will always be different. Personally I am of the school of thought that the bigger the tent the better. If a Twitter-only textual performance of Romeo & Juliet sparks someone to go see Much Ado About Nothing in the park then great - everybody wins. The more we experiment with the art form, the more chance we have at engaging audiences who might not otherwise be interested - in short, a rising tide floats all boats.

Carl Benson
Supreme High Chancellor Pooh Bah of Nothing Significant
PianoFight Productions

 
At August 25, 2010 at 5:22 PM , Blogger Bedzapchillness said...

Bezachin Jifar
Theater Enthusiast

The entirety of our existence is theater (all hail the Bard - all the world is a stage...).

Perhaps we mimic ourselves in all forms/platforms we can find to give some kind of purpose to our time here. By Giving weight to words like Tradition, Culture, History so on and so forth, our representations of ourselves somehow console us. Or at least it would seem so.

Now with CCTV cameras at every corner of the street, ATM machines, cellphone cameras..., everyone is essentially a reality star in someone's video file somewhere. But even without the cameras, it can be easily argued that society has been pressuring the 'individual' to act and behave a certain way and thereby poking him/her to perform.

So, its ALL theater.

All the different kinds of interpretations about the definition of theater mentioned above ring true to me. But, on a very personal and intimate level, i would have to say it has to have 'power' (in the abstract, general sense). If it does not leap, with me on its back, then I'm looking down at the 'form' (be it theater or otherwise) and thinking about its insignificance.

Everyone responds to different stimuli. Some like circus, some like performances with music and some like staged fights. I would say a there's a psychological reasoning behind why certain people like certain attractions/shows/performances.

I would guess a possible 'God complex' on my part for my attraction towards traditionally staged plays that exude some sort of intensity that I pick up as 'Power'-ful. I sense it. Very rare but when i do I want it.

There can never be enough things to be said about the 'human' chronicle. The evolution of an emotional composition.

So, for me, asking 'What is Theater?' is like asking 'Which came first the chicken or the egg?'


Side Note: The need to express, to encapsulate, to have an emotional catharsis of some sort started with the caveman etching figures on walls. To speak and to be heard is inherent in our species as if we need a third party acknowledgement/certification of our existence.


Thanks for hearing me out :]

 
At August 26, 2010 at 10:19 AM , Blogger Vera said...

I feel there is an important distinction, when it comes to theatre, about what is "live" and immediate and what is not. I would not call artistic performances that take place entirely on social media or WoW "theatre" just as I wouldn't call a film or television show theatre. The intended audience (however large or small seems irrelevant to me) is not there experiencing it.

I do feel the need to express, though, that I don't think something not being theatre de-legitimizes it's artistic value. I LOVE the idea of Shakespeare on Facebook and Greek tragedy on WoW. I think that's creative and fantastic. I even think it's "theatrical." I just think it's missing an essential component of what makes theatre distinct from other equally valuable forms of artistic expression and storytelling.

 
At August 26, 2010 at 3:15 PM , Blogger rebecca longworth said...

A fine question & many fine answers!

Taking off on Jessica & Carl's comments about the audience, which seems to be a necessary condition for theatre. Whether or not the audience is in the same physical space as the actors (such as in the WoW Greek tragedy or social-network-R&J examples), they should be able to have some exchange with the performers & performance. The performance should be in real time - interacting with its audience, as I imagine both examples were able to do. Without the potential of audience interaction, it sounds like a recording of a theatrical event, and not the event itself.

I think the WoW and R&J examples are certainly theatrical... but maybe, rather than "theatre" per se, they're something new. Why should we call them "theatre" and not "social networking events" or "gaming performances" or some other devised term?

Whether or not we want to call them "theatre," those examples are exciting in their novelty and creativity. I'd love to participate as an audience member or performer in either. But I would be devastated if, generations from now, theatre existed only in virtual space with virtual interactions, and not live, in the flesh, breathing the same air and inhabiting the same real space as the audience. There's a magic to that which is ever-rarer in our world of virtual connection.

The opera simulcasts are exciting in that they bring opera to a much larger audience, and the audience can experience the opera together as it happens; the real-time nature lends an extra ripple of excitement. But is the experience of the simulcast audience very different from getting a lot of people together at once to watch a canned performance? Is it the simulcast audience or the live audience that makes the performance one of theatre and not film? Or is the audience's experience itself theatre?

I think that theatre needs an audience that has the potential to affect the performance in real time and space. (The distinction between performance/performer and audience is another question entirely!) And I hope that as theatremakers push at the boundaries of our medium, we keep in mind that a live audience that inhabits the same physical space as the live performance has a uniquely immediate experience, no matter how many avatars and other virtual beings are also in attendance.

 
At August 26, 2010 at 11:56 PM , OpenID chasbelov said...

For it to be theatre, I believe it requires all of the following:

1. It has to have a live component.
2. The performers have to be able to experience the audience experience the performance. (So a simulcast audience doesn't count unless their presence is being simulcast back to the performers.)

After this point it starts getting tricky.

Do we require a story? Some avant-garde and experimental theater lacks this component.

Do we require it be word-based as opposed to movement-based (to distinguish from dance) or music-based (to distinguish from a musical performance)? That leaves out Lunatique Fantastique, the local Bay Area theatre that does wordless plays with objects such as "Executive Order 1066."

Do we require that the actors' body language is necessary (to distinguish it from a poetry reading)? Can reading poetry be theatre?

What it may come down to is "I know theatre when I see it" and we may not agree on what that is.

 
At September 2, 2010 at 2:08 PM , Blogger Claudia Alick said...

I think football games are theater. There's a special place where they perform, a place where people audience, there is a narrative of two groups opposing each other, you root for whomever you deem the protagonist and there's almost always a definitive and satisfying conclusion. Of course I also think poetry slams, and courthouse trials, and elections are theater. That said, I think that circus is not theater...it's circus. Rock concerts are not theater, they're rock concerts. But a rock musical IS theater. We label things so we can recognize and control them, as well as control ourselves. How we love to label the performance of human beings. How else would we know how to behave as audience members, or crowd members…or whatever you call the people in a galley at court?

Claudia Alick
associate producer, community
Oregon Shakespeare Festival

 
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