But What's The Audience For?
Until this past June, I’d never attended a theater conference. I came close one year, when my tiny, (now defunct) theater company banged on the doors of the TCG conference with a project about American identity, but we never quite got in. And, of course, I’m not counting all the playwrights conferences at which I’ve worked—the O’Neill, PlayPenn, and Sundance may have “conference” in their names, but they are really new play development environments, and I’m in there to design a couple (or fifteen) new plays, not to discuss big ideas or movements.
But last April, Murph Henderson, of the Philadelphia Theatre Initiative (the theater arm of the Pew Center for Arts and Heritage, and the lifeblood of Philadelphia theater), called to ask me if I wanted to go to the Prague Quadrennial. Now, my Momma didn’t raise any fools—my theater conference virginity has always been more about time and money than philosophy; not only was I happy to be a part of a movement to help Philly designers develop our voices and our craft, I’m also a sucker for Eastern Europe. So I found a way to fill my week between launching a tour in Amsterdam and showing up in Prague (woe is me), and filled out every Pew Center release form with glee.
Of course, like a responsible grant recipient, once I arrived, I tried to keep a record of my thoughts about everything I saw. When I added it all up, the most telling observation was fairly simple and, I guess, fairly obvious—most Americans are making theater that is remarkably different from what’s happening in the rest of the world.
As a recent émigré from New York City, which is often considered the epicenter of our national theater identity, I have a fairly clear sense of how the “big companies” (Broadway, almost all of Off-Broadway, and most LORT theaters) strive to make their work. American mainstream theater is almost entirely created with the very simple goal of telling singular stories with great polish. We do it very well, in both song and drama, and we approach it in a myriad of ways: monologue, dialogue, multi-set, single set, abstract, linear, etc. We may weave many storylines together, but it’s almost always in the service of one single idea, and however complicated or simple the narrative, success is judged based on a combination of clarity, control, splash, and professionalism. And we’re all really confident that this is the best kind of theater to make.
To be perfectly honest, having been so focused throughout my career on helping to make this happen, my time in Prague sent me into a sort of shock. Before I go on, if you don’t know me or my work, you should know that I am largely a product of the James Houghton years at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference—a dramaturgically driven designer who sees his role as one who helps a writer own the entire world of the play, and who sees his work as an aid to completing parts of the play’s world that are not represented onstage by actors or other designers.
American mainstream theater is almost entirely created with the very simple goal of telling singular stories with great polish.
In Prague, I watched pieces like Sidi Larbi Cherkaoui’s Sutra, the result of the Flemish choreographer’s six months in a Shaolin temple with a group of monks, learning and creating without having determined in advance what the story was that they’d be telling. The work they made together offered dozens of possible narratives, all of which were brought to life by an interaction between the events, movement, sound, onstage objects and the audience’s imagination. I watched Me Here, You There—a Czech piece created by two set designer/accordionists (Tereza Benešová and Dragan Stojčevski) and a lighting designer (Jan Beneš), in which every member of the audience went on a journey that was guided by the events onstage, but not dictated by them. I learned about works in Poland, where theater groups are creating environmental installations that are encountered by the audience on the streets of their neighborhoods, outside of any theatrical bounds or even scheduled performance times. I watched a couple, first up close, and then from an observation point where I could listen to a broadcast of their dialogue, as they spent an entire day fighting and wandering through the grounds of the Quadrennial.
I could go on, but my point is that, while these pieces were elegantly made, filled with strong images, crisp performances, and precise detailing, none of them were using their design or their language to tell me what it was I was supposed to be discussing or thinking when I left the theater. They instead excited my senses, and engaged my brain in the moment of the performance. By not delivering a package that answered all questions, they engaged me as an audience member. These pieces required something of me to complete themselves.
Soon after I came back to the States, my wife told me about a children’s theater workshop in which the teacher said, “Live theater is exciting because anything can happen—an actor can forget their lines, or a light can fall from the grid, or someone can forget to make their entrance!” This teacher wasn’t naïve, or uneducated—she has an MFA in theater and education—she just truly had no idea why theater was made in front of an audience and what the audience offers to a production.
So, after a quiet cry in my studio, I realized that my artistic faith demanded that I question why it is that mainstream American theater has such a strong tendency to limit the audience’s role, to feed them a performance without demanding (or even leaving an opening for) any vision on their part, to create work that is only marginally different from what that audience might see at the movies. And, eventually, I began to wonder if the linear nature of traditional American theater-making is partially at fault and if my way of working as an artist isn’t contributing to this problem.
A writer creates a text (possibly nourished by a dramaturg). A director meets with that writer. Maybe they workshop the play with some collaborators at a new play conference or a regional theater, to help clarify the story, the world of the play, the movement—to help focus the work, as it develops. Then into production—a director is hired, (often not the same one from development) and brings that text to a group of designers, each of whom separately focuses on their area of expertise to help create this world. Lastly, that same director moves into a rehearsal room where actors discover how to embody the words and movements.
And I ask myself—is this strict, linear process the reason we create works of theater that dictate and display to our audience, rather than engaging them as an essential part of the theatrical event? In creating works that are so well unified and so supportive, these plays and musicals have been workshopped until all questions are answered, and all focus is pointed to the goal. But have we left any room for the audience to explore on their own? Is it not possible that, by being so dedicated to a singular vision, we’ve created a form of theater that asks nothing of the audience but that they laugh and cry at the moments we’ve designed to so move them?
I know this isn’t the whole story, and, to be frank, I also know that commercial theater is fiscally successful as long as it follows this linear pattern. Indeed, the bravest producer I know (Stephen Hendel) hired us all to create Fela!, and encouraged us to build a work that asked questions rather than answering them; we created a beautifully collaborative work, with a strong leader (Bill T. Jones) at the helm. Fela! never recouped. More traditional musicals that opened alongside us are still running, making their nut each week in this harsh economy. And that’s no small thing. Many American audiences don’t want to do anything demanding at the end of their workday—they want to be entertained. I don’t judge this—indeed, I celebrate it, both as an art form and as a job source, and I believe it can and should continue to happen. Great plays are great things, and I am so very proud of much of the work I’ve done and hope to continue doing in the American theater.
And I know that there are some companies out there that are fully dedicated to working in a different, more collaborative mode—in Philly alone, there’s Pig Iron, New Paradise, Elastic Theater, and Applied Mechanics to name just a few.
But I also wonder if it might be possible for every Off-Broadway and Regional theater company in our country that presents new or contemporary work to commit to taking one “collaborative” risk every season. I’m not dismissing the season selection process in American theater—I know how complicated it is, and how carefully risks and ticket sales are gauged and studied. But, might these companies be willing to give one of their season slots to a group of artists who want to explore an idea without preconceived answers? I wonder if, somewhere in America, we might be able to find a way to keep doing what we do so well, and still give our audiences a chance to put themselves into the play, instead of simply asking them to sit in front of it.