Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

but is it art?

Based on a discussion I had with Patrick the other day, I thought I should post this. I’m not under any illusions that I’m widely read (unlike some of the folks that I’ll be discussing in this post), but I thought I’d put in my two cents.

I was perusing my list of theatre blogs on bloglines, and a thought struck me. Of the theatre blogs I read on a regular basis, there were none by actors. Directors, yes. Playwrights, yes. No actors.

Now this got me thinking yet further. The discussion on most of the blogs often revolves around what makes for good theatre. A recent discussion, for example, had folks from all over the New York scene weighing in on the relative merits of “production values” and what the term meant. It was an interesting discussion, to be sure, and one near and dear to my heart. A lot of times, people will be talking about theatre’s place in society, declining audiences, relevancy to other media, etc. And sometimes the question is as simple as: what is theatre, really?

Well, what is it? A friend of mine recently expressed interest in getting involved in the extensive performance poetry scene in New York, and asked me to sort of introduce him to some of the better venues and groups working in them. I’ve had some experience with these groups, and I knew some of the folks pretty well, so of course I agreed. The angle of the performance of poetry interested me pretty intensely for a while a few years back, but I found I didn’t cotton to it as much as I enjoyed traditional theatre. But if you really think about it, aside from the conventions (verse instead of “natural” speech (though not always!), physicality based on gesture rather than full expression with the body (again, not always!), roots in hip-hop and its culture) what’s performance poetry but a different kind of theatre? At its essence, it’s a person using their voice and body to tell a story.

Is anything else necessary? Not costumes, not lights, not microphones, not sets, not pre-written, naturalistic (or otherwise) texts, not directors, not props, not musicians, not really even a stage. Nothing but someone with an audience telling a story using their voice and body.

The voice distinguishes it from dance, the body distinguishes it from radio. Other than that, it’s fair game. Anything else is convention. That gives a lot of leeway. TV shows and movies could be considered a subset of theatre, since the story is told using broadcast images of people telling stories. Animation could (I suppose) also be considered a subset, since representations of bodies are used… though one would have to argue about the more surreal elements of, say, Looney Tunes, and I don’t intend to do that here.

Performance poetry, is, obviously under this definition, another subset. The text is verse, the gestures have their own conventions, but the story is still told (or even only evoked) by a person using their body and voice.

I love working with directors. I love to take direction and work in collaboration with people who have differing visions than I. But under the definition I’ve posited directors are definitely non-essential. Witness the phenomenon of the “actor-manager” in British (and, I’m presuming American) theatre up until very recently.

Playwrights (and, in fact plays as conventionally understood, as in: stage directions, so-and-so speaks, such-and-such also speaks, they are told to do things, all as words on a page) are also not essential. Which is not to say I don’t like reading plays. I LOVE reading plays. I’m just trying to peel things down to essentials, here, and by this definition, not so much.

So that begs the question. Why is theatre being defined online by people who are, as far as I can tell, non-essential to the matter? This is also not to say that they shouldn’t. On the contrary, everyone should come up with their own definitions, and I love a good debate over ideas, even ones I agree with. But why are they the face of theatre? Where my actors at?

Well, I talked to both Stephanie and Patrick about this matter, and they both pointed out the same thing. Most actors are not writers. That’s all. In fact, many actors I know could be considered by some definition to be functionally illiterate. And lazy.

When I count the number of plays I’ve heard and seen ruined by an actor who couldn’t be bothered to speak the words of the play as the author wrote them, or who blazed past the meaning of the lines by completely ignoring such elementary considerations as punctuation, I’ll admit to becoming a little steamed.

Well, I can write (somewhat), and I can read (a bit), and so I guess I’m gonna write a little about that.


  1. I've been thinking about this since the other night, and the one thing that popped into my head at the time, but couldn't find its way out of my mouth, was the following:

    The one thing I know for certain from conversations with fellow theatre people -- whether they occur on a blog or in meatspace -- is that whenever they attempt to break theatre down into its basic elements, the one element that is always found to be absolutely essential is . . . whatever role they've taken upon themselves in the theatrical continuum. Writers believe that theatre can't be performed without a script/story; directors believe someone has to be there as the audience-surrogate; actors believe that without the performer, there's no performance; you can't see the performance without light, and hence the need for a lighting designer, etc.

    I think that's terrific, actually. It shows the passion of each artist for their art. We all need to justify our existence to some degree, right?

    The only thing needed for a performance is something to watch and someone to watch it (which can occasionally rule out the actor, too.) But that makes me think that the only thing that's actually essential is an audience.

    More thoughts later, probably over at my place.

  2. The watcher always implies the watched. There cannot be an audience (by definition) without what they're looking at. An audience watching a sunset? Not theatre. An audience could read a play projected up on a screen maybe, and that MIGHT qualify as theatre, but other than that, it's not theatre unless there's the audience and the person they're watching. Otherwise it's just a bunch of people standing around. So, I think my original definition still stands.

    Puppets count as actors, too. :)