And, if I just hold on
Hold on tight
Will the fair wind take me
To where the sun does shine days of light
If I just hold on
Hold on tightAthey Thompson
On Memorial Day weekend, for the first time in a year and a half, I attended the theater. The production was out-of-doors, and the evening was cold and wet. Before going, I was hesitant and did not really feel in the mood to break my year-and-a-half live theater fast, even though it was to be outside and safely distanced. I simply did not feel ready.
But in the end, I enjoyed the experience enormously. Afterwards, I realized that a theater event is only partially about the play itself. The experience is largely about audiences and actors gathering and, together, willing a play into existence.
As we assemble anew in theaters to perform or to be present for performances, the sudden novelty of the experience seems to be triggering heightened emotions from both audiences and actors. I hear that simply walking onto the stage, actors are now occasionally greeted with standing ovations. The shared intimacy is impactful, as is the event of being present in the same space with humans who are speaking, singing; their bodies moving in space, in harmony. The event can feel phenomenal, in the sense that the activity is an authentic phenomenon. What we had once taken for granted is now renewed. But the theater, at its essence, must, by its nature, be phenomenal and constantly reified. Our charge is to create experiences that burn into the moment, that do nothing less than stop time.
Now, as we emerge from the long pandemic cesura, there are many who suggest that a return to theater-making and theatergoing requires the creation of a “Theater 2.0.” What is meant by “Theater 2.0”?
The intent to create new systems and means is noble, but we also should keep in mind that our predictions about what will happen in the coming years are merely best guesses. We never really know what is going to happen. We make bets, we make plans, we invest in dreams, but no one really knows what will happen. The notion that we know what will happen is an illusion. We certainly did not predict the closing of theaters due to Covid 19.
And yet, we are in a moment that requires us to change our postures, our attitudes and our means and methods. There are highly justified calls for equity, for “decolonizing the rehearsal room,” for dismantling oppressive practices and institutional racism, for less hierarchical practices, for valuing and honoring individuals in the room, for taking the carbon footprint into consideration, for kinder work conditions. Mythologist Joseph Campbell wrote, “Things change; it’s a precondition for the great quest. The familiar life horizon has been outgrown; the old concepts, ideals and emotional patterns no longer fit; the time for the passing of a threshold is at hand.”
We are indeed embarking upon a “great quest,” and we are called upon to bring theater back to life in a way that addresses the problems of the current world that we inhabit. And the world has changed. There is a great deal to unpack and to reconsider. Can we shift focus and rethink the models that we inherited? Even the current architecture of our theaters may require reassessment. What are the most optimal spaces for the performative event? Can we reimagine how we use the theaters that already exist? How might we redesign them? Theater designer Es Devlin said recently, “The pandemic has opened our eyes to the possibilities that the architecture that we have received was born of different times and different imperatives.” She proposes that we innovate how we construct places for performances, taking into consideration public health, fresh air, and perhaps design spaces that open out onto the streets. We must consider the connection between theaters and the environment, theater and nature, theater and the sky, and how to consider sanitation, ventilation, and fire prevention. Are our current theaters unhospitable? Can we look to ancient, open-air architectural forms as a source of inspiration?
Looking back through history, our present-day situation is not the first time that the theater has been brought to a screeching halt. We know about a great plague in Ancient Greece in 430 B.C with subsequent spikes in 428 and 426. Also, during the Roman Empire plagues came and went. Although there is little documentation about how actors and theaters dealt with the apparent dangers, we can look at the theater architecture of that time. Theaters were often constructed away from the major cities and citizens traveled from far and wide for the experience of performance in the fresh air. Many theaters, like Epidaurus, Dodoni, Messene and later Pergamon were constructed in sacred sites called Asklepieia. These locations were healing centers, the equivalent of modern-day hospitals. The theaters were meant to honor the gods, who would help people get well. The Ancient Greeks treated the mind, the body, and the soul holistically. Unless the soul was healed, the body would remain sick. As a result, watching theatrical performances was an integral part of the therapeutic process for patients. We know that these open-air theaters hosted literary, musical, and athletic competitions in addition to plays.
In London between 1592-93, the bubonic plague put an end to public performances. Another outbreak in 1603 caused the death of almost one in five Londoners. Because crowd control was one of the few effective ways of keeping the death toll down, playhouses were closed during these plague outbreaks. Clearly an occupational hazard for the theater industry, plagues closed theaters down every decade in the late 16th and early 17th century.
Historically, it was not always plagues that shut the theaters down. In 1642, the Puritan-led government that had been trying ban theater on moral and economic grounds closed all theaters in London for 18 years, suggesting “times of humiliation” and accused stage plays of being “representative of lascivious mirth and levity.” It was a noxious anti-entertainment environment.
But what can also be seen is that the theaters generally reopened to a burst of innovation and diversification. After Shakespeare’s theater was closed by the plague, when it reopened, the plays headed indoors. New ideas in scenic design arrived in force. Throughout the world when theaters shut down, either for political, moral or health reasons, creative people tend to find stealthy ways to make theater happen anyway. Even with theaters closed, innovation endured. In the 17th century, during the puritanical ban, “closet dramas,” plays that were written to be read instead of performed, were often recited in small groups. Also, during this period, there were experiments in opera, which slipped under the official radar because it was regarded as music instead of theatrical performance. Then when the ban ended, people flooded back into the theater where new innovations that had never been see before proliferated. The 18- year theatrical ban brought creative changes that radically transformed the industry. Before the ban, there had been no female actors; only boys in womanly attire. After the ban female actors became the norm. Cleopatra was finally played by a woman.
In 1918, following a global conflict that had already taken millions of lives, a killer pandemic swept across the war-torn world, killing an estimated 20 million people. But, again, after the war and the pandemic, there was an explosion of artistic innovation and revelry. Historian Anselm Heinrich wrote about how the performing arts not only survived the crisis, but also came out stronger. “The avant-garde across dance, visual art, film, theater … clearly came out of life-threatening crisis. That might not have happened if it were not for the crisis of the First World War and the Spanish flu. It reinvigorated (people) – they have a new thirst for creative expression.”
The advent of the “talkies” was also catastrophic for the theater, especially Broadway, and it closed many venues. But ultimately, theater did not disappear, rather it came back in novel ways. While film induces a kind of hypnotic passivity, the theater relies on conscious collaboration. The success of the theater experience relies upon its immediacy and the fact that audiences crave the instant rapport, feedback and liveness, and that theater specifically capitalizes on the present moment conversation between actors and audience.
Throughout history, in periods of political censorship, points could be made on stage that could not be articulated onscreen. In Eastern Europe before the wall came down, performances were riddled with artful indications and surreptitious communication. Audiences are adept at reading performances and reading the gestures and the insinuations. It is possible to find this use of theater all over the world in moments of oppression and restriction.
After major obstacles, whether plague, war, or repression, each reopening is usually met by the massive and necessary infusion of invention and innovation required to get the performance back on its feet. At the end of the Second World War, England started the Arts Council, and the government in Scotland founded the Edinburgh International Festival with the intention of bringing people together and “to heal the wounds of war” through the arts.
The events of 9/11 nearly shattered the spirit of New York City. Everything stopped, including the theater. But the city’s political and cultural leaders understood that, for the good of people’s spirits, theaters needed to return quickly. The TKTS booth was instructed to re-open on September 13th and this seemed to provide great relief, both to New Yorkers as well as the thousands of tourists who had found themselves trapped in the grieving city. Unable to fly anywhere and wearied by their television screens playing constant reruns of death and destruction, going to the theater became a source of great succor. The Broadway marquees dimmed their lights in tribute to the dead and concerts and performances were also staged out of doors. When the theaters opened, each production included a moment of silence prior to performances to commemorate the losses. The re-opening was about the living, about resilience, and it triggered a sense of collective accomplishment from both performers and audience. The months following the attack were tough but brought out a strong demonstration of resilience on the part of theater people in New York City.
And now, as we adjust to nearly two years of physical distancing and cultural, environmental, and political upheaval, we are called upon to reopen our theaters using what we have learned in the interim. Emphatically, there is no going back to normal. It is incumbent upon us to ask the following questions: Why theater now? What are we retaining and what are we letting go of? What are we changing? Are we truly in touch with the problems that we are trying to solve now? Recently Lyn Gardner wrote in The Guardian: “It is those organizations that have been able to improvise, throw away their well-laid plans and do something different that have fared best during the pandemic. It is those that have been least able to adapt to both the circumstances and, most particularly, need of freelancers or the audiences and communities they serve that have seemed most out of touch and self-serving. That includes some of our biggest and best-funded institutions.”
Perhaps it is the artists who will lead the institutions in the new directions. Perhaps our institutions do not have to make decisions so far in advance and can become more responsive and willing to improvise. Perhaps stories can be told in simpler ways, and we will rely less upon stage machinery and more on the bodies of the performers, their words, their songs, their movements. Can we use what we have learned from our recent abundant use of technology to use hybrid methods to reach audiences and potential partners from around the world?
Vicky Featherstone, the current Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theater in London, said, “Good art and good theater come out of artists having the confidence to say what they want in a way that is challenging. The role of institutions is to understand you can’t strategize entirely for that – there needs to be flexibility and some kind of chaos.”
For me, many plays that seemed relevant in 2019, no longer feel essential. Other plays have suddenly become indispensable. Personally, I currently crave a theater that celebrates the human body and the human voice, bodies in space, communities making journeys together through treacherous metaphorical terrain, individuals and groups going through trials that reveal the human experience. I am not so interested in elaborate scenery or effects, or smart-aleck concepts. I want to experience different communities encountering one another – and different disciplines as well: dance with oratory, music with expressionist movement and text. I crave theater that makes me feel less alone. I want a theater that is capable of conjuring both the visible and the invisible; the mysterious and the extraordinary. In Bali the concept of taksu, celebrates the divine energy channeled through the performer. But Taksu does not exist solely within the actor or dancer but rather in the community created by the event of the performance.