Tuesday, March 06, 2007

from the files

Going through some old stuff and found this. Something I wrote four years ago, fresh from the shock:

Theatre in Wartime
October, 2001

I've always believed that the act of theater is a potentially dangerous, even revolutionary act. I share this belief with most members of my generation of American theatre artists. We were taught this belief mainly through books. In college we were exposed to Artaud's Theatre as Plague. We read poorly translated Brecht, brushing off the Anglicisms thick as flies, trying to taste the blood and sweat of battle. We puzzled over Fo, getting few of the references and none of the jokes. We quoted Grotowski and Brook to each other, reverent and rapt.

And then we got jobs in summer stock. Our resumes filled with Shakespeare, Stoppard and Gilbert and Sullivan. The writers among us unwittingly split between the camps of Shepard and Mamet, both honorable and interesting schools, but neither revolutionary. The directors discovered Viewpoints. And we all found our way into the existing infrastructure of the American theatre industry. The best and the brightest of us either quit early or got jobs in film and television. The rest of us, more persistent and arguably less ambitious, stayed in the living and breathing theater.

And we lived like double agents there, or more accurately like split personalities, talking revolution while walking the status quo. A simpler way of saying it is we lived like hypocrites. Our theater was not revolutionary. We were not trying to infect anyone or incite anything. We were trying to impress our elders and outstrip our peers. We were trying to get paid. We were just trying to get by, really. But we kept our battered copies of Towards a Poor Theatre and The Empty Space and The Theatre and It's Double up on the top shelf and kept quotes from them above our desks. We were like most modern-day Christians, with our favorite Gospel memorized, only accidentally applying the lesson to our daily life.

See, we grew up rich, vicariously if not in fact. We grew up in the last twenty-five years here in America. We grew up fat and happy. Not our fault, but one of our facts. We were like the rich, smart white kids who secretly or openly envy the world's oppressed for their clear targets of rebellion and overthrow.

Those of us who doggedly stayed in the theatre soon had to deal with the embarassing fact that we seemed to be working in a deeply anachronistic field. Here we were in the age of Dell selling Underwoods. We were offering jugs of water in Starbucks. We were standing next to a DJ playing a harpsichord. We were in downtown Detroit opening up bicycle factories. Live theater, when anyone thought about it, which was rarely, was either boring or quaint. Or worse, it was important. Important like those books on the top shelf, covered in dust, not important like your day-runner, not something you would ever actually need.

And then last month the world fell apart. With two buildings down, another one burning and a plane crashed in a Pennsylvanian field, our veneer of safety was stripped and we all woke up, blinking, to a new day. Three thousand dead and two hundred and fifty million changed.

The immediate reaction was survival, of course, and the frantic counting of heads. Once the planes were out of the sky, once night came and friends and family were accounted for, once the world and its prosaic, comforting details came creeping back in, we started asking ourselves what now? What do we do?

I am not a firefighter. I am not a steelworker or a truck driver or a member of the National Guard. I cannot perform the immediate, physical tasks that will rebuild the city. I work in the theater. I write, act, direct, coach, and can, if pressed, run lights and sound. The mayor did not seem to have any use for me.

Two or three days after the attacks, I began reading the reactions of my colleagues in New York. I read through the articles and then raced through them again. I thought surely there had been a mistake. They didn't say that. Why would they say that? There must be more, there must be a last paragraph saying Come to the theater. Come tonight. We don't know what we'll be doing but come. We'll be there. Come for an hour. Come for ten minutes. Come cry or argue or just sit. Come now if you wish. Our doors will be open.

There was no paragraph. There was no invitation. There was no acknowledgement or expression of the theatre's essential function, as a place of secular communion and worship. I read only admissions of inadequacy. I read self-indictments of irrelevance. It all could be expressed as one question my colleagues asked: Who want to come to the theatre now? implying that there were clearly more important activities the populace should be engaged in, such as going blind from excessive CNN exposure while drinking heavily at home.

And yes, we were all in shock here in New York. None of us can be held completely accountable for words or actions those first few days. But crisis reveals the truth. And the truth is, we were revealed as faithless. Over and over, like a demented Greek chorus, we intoned "What do we do now? What kind of theatre do we create?

May I suggest we get down the books? You know the ones, the ones we claim to be our Scripture. Read Artaud and think blueprint rather than poetry. Read early Brecht. Read the critics. Read Clurman. Read Fo. And then put the books away and get busy. Put up your initial reaction. It will be raw. It will be provisional. It will be incomplete. But the theatre, finally, is about incompletion. The theater is built on wild attempts and shots in the dark and striving for something just past your reach. It's live, it's messy, it's human. Writers, stop polishing that perfect phrase and scribble down a love letter to life, a vicious attack and smear of death, anything from your heart, not your head. Directors, stop worrying about incidental music and the staging, stop formulating your interpretation and make sure that the essential thrust and music of the the writer's words are there. And actors, the bravest of us, those that actually stand there and deliver, actors, stand there under the lights and sacrifice yourself, sacrifice your solitary fears and worries and concerns, sacrifice yourself in front of all of us, do righteous battle with your own ego and struggle and triumph and fail.

Live theater is the mark of civilization. Live theater is the most immediate expression of a culture. We can move the fastest. We work close up, hand to hand. We are the Delta Force of the arts. And we are needed now.

The communal event of the theatre, the gathering of humans to watch and listen to other humans, is the single most valuable experience anyone can have right now. We need to be together in a quiet, dark place and listen to each other breathe. We need to bump knees and brush shoulders. We need to hear each other sigh and and snort and cry and laugh. We need to feel strong and connected. Those are some of the things the theater gives us. We need to remember the glories and strengths of civilization. That's another thing theater gives. Put up Shakespeare, Marlowe, Moliere and Shaw. This is, we're told, what we are fighting for: civilization. And I put forward that civilization is more fully expressed in August Wilson than in a re-run of Friends, more intimately experienced through Chekhov than through a Jets game.

When the world falls apart, you are left with essentials. We are part of those essentials. When a Global Positioning System fails, it's helpful to have a compass. When computers crash, an Underwood comes in pretty handy. When you run out of gas, you can still get there on a bike. We are now, as we always were, important. In the sense that a jug of water is more important than a frappucino, matches more important than a Kleig light, a baseball bat more important than a security system when you find yourself in actual, immediate danger. We are important because we do it the old-fashioned way. Hand-to-hand. Face-to-face. Making it up as we go along. And that is what is needed now.

For god's sake stop arguing for our irrelevance. There are plenty of people who will do that for us, even in the best of times. And try not to complain now that it's hard. It is hard. This time it's real. This time people actually need us. Step up and speak.

That was four years ago, folks. How are we doing?


Alison Croggon said...

Damn right.

My reaction was to restart Masthead. You might find this issue interesting.

thatann said...

Damn it, John. What are you doing writing stuff like this down and then putting it *away*? You should be opening the windows and flinging it out into the world...because I'm always a little better after I've read something you've focused your laser brain on.

George Hunka said...

Essays like this sometimes make me sorry I started this last October. Then an essay like yours reminds me why I did.

George Hunka said...

And welcome back, by the way.

eastriver said...

Thank you for bringing this out of the files John. Beautiful!