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The Show Must Go On - 3 Articles With Life-Saving Advice For Theater Arts

Updated on January 5, 2015

The Sky Can Still Fall On Our Heads

The above subtitle derives from Antonin Artaud's well known dictum: "We are not free. And the sky can still fall on our heads. And the theater has been created to teach us that first of all." Artaud sought a theater so vital that the possibility of its absence would cause frenzy and delirium. However, Artaud never fully realized such a stage and his legacy seems to encumber as much as free his artistic descendents. Yet, the persistence of theatrical vitality remains a chronic fixture of debate regarding performing arts: what is the relevance of theater in a society increasingly reliant on technological media? What are the quintessential traits of theater differentiating it from other performing arts? How can the contemporary theater liberate itself from its more careworn traditions while still retaining these traits? the answers to these questions encompass nearly half a century of strenuous academic and professional criticism. Below are a few recent articles that both raise and attempt to elevate these questions for contemporary theater artists.

It's Pretty, But Is Theater Any Longer Necessary?

Dramaturg, playwright and Northern Illinois University professor Robert Schneider doesn't shirk from invoking Artaud as he appeals for a more vibrant and vital theater model. He substantiates this need with the startling statistic that theater audiences have declined by one third in the past decade. The crux of his argument, however, may be found in his comparison of lighthouses and the performing arts:

In gift shops, thrift stores and the pages of glossy magazines we find lighthouses galore. Whether in porcelain or plastic, plaster or plywood, these representations rarely capture the life-preserving seriousness of the structures they celebrate. They are prettified and trivialized ... We’ve done a parallel disservice to the theater: we’ve allowed an ancient institution of high purpose to devolve to something merely decorative, an appurtenance of leisured life, not a preserver of life itself. Theater no longer guides, it distracts. Theater no longer orients, it diverts. Theater no longer flashes out danger, it celebrates good feeling.

The above observation infers theater has been rendered quaint rather than vital by the technological advancements of recent decades. Here, Schneider compels his readers to seek a theater that values relevance over spectacle.The paradox proves intriguing; a stage that eschews mere commercial value is the only theater capable of survival.

Discussion Point: While Schneider's criticism of a homogenized, wholly commercial theater seems apt, is it possible his sepulcher position as a University faculty and literary adviser prove equally gentrified to a casual observer? The history of avant-garde performance rarely includes widespread commercial success or patronage. It is perhaps misplaced to demand contemporary theater disseminate itself more than its predecessors. At once, however, one must concede Schneider's central proposition; the survival of the performing arts cannot be secured so long as theater merely emulates ancillary media - film, animation, television.

Lucy Jane Adcock performs Music and the Mirror as Cassie at The London Palladium

A New Education For A New Theater

University of North Carolina Drama faculty Scott Walters here implores post-secondary educators to radically rethink the aim and scope of contemporary theater education. According to Walters, current degree programs render performing artists wholly subservient to others' interests. As the composition states:

Our theater education needs to reclaim this past and place it front and center. We need to teach young people to be self-reliant, independent, capable and responsible. Instead of having the faculty choose a season, direct the shows, design most of them, handle the budget and bring in an audience, students need to be given total control of the means of production.

At first blush, the statement could be criticized for over determined political ideology. However, deeper analysis reveals that the hearts blood of Walters's writing concerns the need for collaborative artists to possess more agency in an increasingly stratified occupation. Walters substantiates this argument by noting next generation theater artists will needs must generate their own audiences. supplanting the necessity for a wider spectrum of self-reliant performers.

Discussion Point: Walters overall message appeals to artists that find themselves at odds with prevailing conventions regarding the style and substance of contemporary commercial theater. At the same time, it is the nature of occupational training to discern each artist's individual talents as their careers naturally become more specialized. Based on this premise, can a "jack of all trades" curriculum truly prepare students for the hyper competitive climate of contemporary performing arts? In order to prosper, Walters model would require a seismic change in the models of present theatrical endeavors.

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Ten Things Theaters Need to Do Right Now to Save Themselves

Veteran journalist Brendan Kiley candidly shares a "mulligan stew" of observations regarding the extensive changes required to revitalize a waning professional theater. The essay's more radical ideas include eschewing classical repertory, developing new productions, aim for younger audiences and abandoning union employees. Kiley even suggests "building bars" as a way to inculcate theater in the community:

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.

Even if Kiley's analysis seems boorish, its value as "outside analysis" seems transparent based on the above passage. Between the lines of such observations dwells an appeal for less esoteric spectatorship in favor of an egalitarian performance space; a theater, as Brecht would say, where "smokers" are a welcome sight.

Discussion Point: While Kiley's "fast and dirty" tactics may appeal to young artists that cannot relate to the traditional, at times reactionary, legacy of professional theater, such advice offers no guarantees for success. How can one,for example, count on an audience that can be swayed by such facile conventions as a "high quality bar?" With all the (often justified) criticisms of "obligation crowds," one can at least count on such spectators' loyalty. in order to fully appreciate Kiley's criticisms, one must first understand the deeper clarion beneath the composition's advice for a culturally relevant and inclusive theater.

Wanted: Standing Ovations!

Break a leg with your next performance. I sincerely hope these provoke a thoughtful conversation between yourself and like minded performers. In the meantime, I look forward to your kind feedback and hope you'll check out my other Hub Pages related to the performing arts and drama.


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