Thursday, May 04, 2006

keep off the grass

I'm climbing off the barricades for a moment with this post, trying to nail down a slippery thought. I've been hired to teach acting and directing at a university next year and so I'm trying to get some basics clear in my head.

What keeps me motivated and working in the theater is a profound and near-complete hatred of the theater. I hate the literalism of most design, the straight-faced mimicry the actors are asked to perform, the cowardice and obviousness of most of the writing, the confusion and dereliction of most directing. If I see a show and there are five minutes that genuinely surprise or hold me, that's an exceptional night in the theater. Five minutes out of seventy five. If it were music, I wouldn't buy the album. If it were a novel I would have thrown it across the room a long time ago. But every single time, when I 'm sitting there with others and the lights go down I lean forward, excited, focused, ready. That's usually the best part of the event. The leaning forward, the gathering of thought and focus and energy. And then its an hour or so of watching talented people slop around in horseshit.

So, not to just curse the darkness, here's where I think the problem begins:

The basic cul-de-sac or bear-trap that American theatre and most Western theatre has gotten caught in is this limited idea of representational realism. We think, in general terms, that that's our job description. Represent (which means imitate) reality. You hear it when someone asks you "what's your play about?" meaning what is the story or the issue you're presenting or exploring. You don't hear anyone ask that question about a Pollock painting or a Charlie Parker recording. We're hooked into this straight-on or fun-house mirror relationship to what we call the "real world". (I actually used that phrase in a press release for Fatboy, "a fun-house mirror reflection of the world we live in" or something like that.) And when we say or lazily think "the real world", we're accepting, right at the start, that the real world is the phenomenal world only and that people behave in an orderly, understandable, rational manner and that by and large, we all want and believe and fear the same things. We're all a bunch of good Freudians when we sit down to work.

The truth is, of course, that "the real world" is a place of wonder, mystery, chaos, terror, beauty, confusion and sudden illumination. That's the real world. We can all negotiate it and try to make some kind of individual sense out of it, but the experience of a gradual unfolding of events that lead towards a greater understanding is not one that I can ever remember having. Not in the real world. I don't experience a lot of reason or rationality in my day-to-day life, I deal mostly with faith, luck, superstition, habit and surprise. And I don't think I'm that different from most people.

By accepting this severely limited and frankly false definition of "reality", we wall off the most fertile soil we can work in and are left to toil in a bare, parched, well-traveled patch of public property. "Write a love story, because lovers always get together in the end." Just like real life. "Write a court-room drama, because they system of justice always triumphs." Just like real life. Whatever you write, just make sure that the characters and all of their actions are understandable and the whole thing means something that anyone paying attention can comprehend and sum up in three sentences. Just like real life.

What we're experiencing is the final, hollow triumph of empiricism, the result of a centuries old raising of Reason to the status of religion. We earnestly believe that Things Make Sense and Things Add Up and Things Happen for a Reason. And so our theater reflects this belief and because we're not as creative or as cruel as whatever Life Force/Playwright that has cast us in this "real world" situation we find ourselves in, our plays are pale, watered-down, slow, obvious forgeries of the Original, of "life". And the more we try to represent "reality", the more we fail.

When I was a young actor I got cast in a Horton Foote play, The Traveling Lady. The set was the front lawn of some boarding house in Texas. We were rehearsing in the theater and one day I walked in and they had laid sod on the stage. It was real grass. I started laughing. I stood in the audience, on a wooden floor, and then stepped onto the stage, real grass, and couldn't stop laughing. No one else found it remotely funny, and I couldn't explain how ludicrous and sad the design choice was to me, how intrinsically wrong it was to me. I don't know if I'm being clear about it now, but I'm just going to try to keep chasing the thought. The other actors and the director started getting a little mad, so I shut up about it, but I couldn't stop giggling. The futility of it. The attempt to use something real to represent something false in order to increase its realism. The complete and unacknowledged failure of the imagination.

I see this same "real grass" phenomenon in most Stanislavski-schooled actors. The good ones are very good at pretending to be real people. Problem is most real people are very boring and physically and vocally do everything they can not to stand out from the crowd. This attempt to be "real" is responsible for the Plague of Subtlety in the American acting world. All these small choices, choices based on "what the character's thinking" or "what the character feels". I spend half the time in rehearsal telling actors to get a wider physical base and shout more. Not half, but at least a third.

The real grass rule works great for film and television. You know why? Because you can show real grass. Real grass, real trees, real sky, real buildings. In the theater, the real grass is hanging out there alone, looking sad and a little foolish Looking like it showed up at the wrong party and is wondering where all its friends are. I felt bad for the grass after a while doing that show.

Same real grass reaction to most plays I read based on historical situations. Same thing when I saw Guantanomo and The Exonorated. Those were particulary strange because you had actors saying the actual words of real people. And I kept thinking...Man, this would make a great documentary.

So what's left for us if we abandon "reality" and turn the mirror to the wall? Everybody running around shouting gibberish? Long, strange, boring light shows?

There are already some things out there, contemporary things worth pointing to. Here in Manhattan there's a company called Vampire Cowboy Theater. They have these two cowboys slouching on the side of the stage the whole time and at the beginning and the end and in the middle too, I think, they do the classic cowboy showdown bit, but one of them is a vampire and attacks the other one. Lights down. No attempt to weave it in to the rest of the show. Brilliant. Chicago's Neo-futurists have been doing theater not attempting to reflect anything remotely real for fifteen years now, they don't reflect reality because they accept and acknowledge openly that they are part of the same reality as the audience. In the same place, same time, doing a show in front of them. Brilliant. You all have similar and better examples of this. I'm suggesting that this kind of immediacy and honesty and acceptance of the actual place and time is something we should begin to base our work on and instead of attempting to make things seem real, accept that they are real.


The thought remains out in front of me, but I'm going to post this anyway in the hope that others help track it down. I've been reading some people out there in the blogworld who seem to have a great grounding in theory, more than me, so tell me if I'm talking about something obvious or if I'm making any sense at all.

A theater that doesn't pretend, that doesn't imitate. A theater that engages an audience and keeps focusing them on the realities in front of them, not any fiction. A theater that reverses the usual flow of energy, that doesn't try to draw the audience into world of the play, but draw the play into the world of the audience...

And it can be funny, too.

More on this League of Independent Producers soon. Some great meetings going on already, seems like it might be a very good idea.

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