Maybe we’re just doing it wrong

Day one: I try the best I can to try and articulate a huge looming dark cloud of a feeling.

Day two… is a little harder. So I’ll start basic, with a mission statement. This is, in theory, where the work begins, right?

Swim Pony is committed to the creation of unique live performances that are joyful and defy tradition in order to bring contemporary audiences beyond their experiences of the every-day.

It’s not perfect. It sounds a little frou-frou fancy, right? I don’t know that I always feel like the things I make really do connect beyond the fact that they happen to be things I find interesting one year to the next. I also wonder sometimes if the need to define and explain causes us to create boundaries on our work that ultimately inhibit it. But that’s another essay, so for now, let’s proceed.

When I re-read that statement, these are the parts that stick out as mattering the most:

Swim Pony is committed to the creation of unique live performances that are joyful and defy tradition in order to bring contemporary audiences beyond their experiences of the every-day.

If there’s a reason I choose THEATER over some other way of expressing, it’s that I want it to matter that it’s LIVE and that it’s that goes BEYOND every day life.  Without the first it could be recorded and without the second I could just experience it directly.

This gets me to my despair with naturalism.

What do I mean with that term? Well, (and I’m going to have to generalize here) I’m mostly talking about plays that:

–       Use a fourth wall to pretend like the audience isn’t there

–       Focus mostly on interpersonal dysfunctional of relationships, families or work environments (aka people talking to other people about the things they do everyday)

–       Tend to be set in a realistic, often domestic, space like a house, workplace or social setting

I gave a talk once about devised theater and to prove a point, googled something like “best new broadway drama” or something like that (I don’t remember the exact search so don’t get all fact-checky on me with this) and this is the image that popped up:

play play

People talking to other people in a domestic setting behind a fourth wall

You have all seen this play.

It had a beige couch and a couple talking about how upset they were. Oh, and everyone is white and not too terribly concerned about money. They just have a really shitty relationship. It centered on two people who were movie stars. And The New York Times review probably called it “a searing drama.”

I’m exaggerating. But you know what I mean.

Searing as these performers might be, is there anything about this experience that isn’t better served as a movie? I mean that totally sincerely. If I turned this into a movie I could much more easily make sweeping visual transitions between realistic spaces, get much closer up and intimate with the performer’s faces (especially if I’m comparing to a massive broadway house), and create a far more “realistic” setting. I’d even go so far as to say that the world I’m asking you to buy into (by dimming the lights, by telling you to be quiet) is a lot easier to jump onto when I know that it’s going to keep going whether or not my cell phone accidentally goes off. And to boot I can get it out to a hugely larger number of people.

This shortcoming is not the fault of a single actor or director or set designer.  This is a shortcoming of the entire community that engages in the medium of theater. Someone, please convince me otherwise. Because some days I feel crazy, like we’ve all just decided to ignore what seems obvious. And by engaging that denial, we’re actually ignoring the things that theater DOES do that movies can’t.

The pretending the audience isn’t there. I need some help! Please, make it okay again. Something has flipped in my brain and I can’t go back. It feels like in a world that allows so many opportunities for us to disengage and isolate through technology, what a waste, what an incredible missed opportunity to create community or ritual or just connection by including them. By seeing them. By taking advantage of the moment to say, we are all here, together, and we are all going to pay attention to one thing, because how often does that happen? And you are NECESSARY for that to happen.  But I mostly feel like I could be there or not. Or that if I don’t laugh or audibly sigh I’m the problem. And the effort it takes for me not to notice the guy next to me coughing is not worth it because almost always I’d rather just watch the conflict of him and his cough instead of what’s on the stage.

Why is it always the moment when the play goes OFF script that the audience sits up and takes notice. We know this phenomenon and share these stories. When the lights went out and the play finished by candlelight. When the comedian cracks up and just can’t bring it back. When the set falls down. Two weekends ago I saw a show (out of town) where a guy did a spit take and hit a woman in the audience. BEST MOMENT OF THE PLAY. Is it possible that immediacy of moment, that moment where we are connected in surprise or discovery, that moment of being united together in how to navigate this journey can BE the whole thing? I still find it in rehearsal, but so rarely in performance. And for the record, I hate audience participation. But it’s mostly because I feel like that role has been predefined and if it goes poorly, I have failed the show, not the other way around.

I know, there are people who still prefer the old way to receive a story. And of course I have seen amazing naturalism performances. And of course the people who do this well are incredible talents. But there are fewer and fewer people who want this kind of experience and they are increasingly rarified a niche of the population. Are the theaters that do these plays like people who staunchly insist they only need a landline phone? There’s nothing morally wrong about that choice, but it’s going to mean you are working against a giant cultural tide that everyone else is riding. And slowly, are you making yourself obsolete to a large portion of people? Try and tell me that theater is as relevant a medium as it was 100 years ago before recorded film existed. I just don’t buy it.

I think I’m at the limit for today.

Tomorrow: looking at what theater superpowers I think it might we might have forgotten.



    I always always always ask what a performance is doing that a movie or youtube video or something else can’t. i see a lot of performance that refuses to deal with the fact that the way people encounter culture is so vastly different than the way people did anywhere between 20 and 100 years ago.
    do current funding structures have something to do with this? patrons and grantmaking organizations that prefer to invest in safe choices?
    I’m positive that performance can be transformative. Infinitely more transformative than a movie, if delivered the right way, dispensing with all that realistic crap that theater had to deal with in order to touch the numinous that now we don’t have to since movies have that covered.
    i hope, at least.

  2. So what happens if you conclude you’re riding a wave to obsolescence? Because I can see tremendous value in those aspects of the theater that make it unique, AND I’m really interested in what you have to say, but what if the aspects that can be done better elsewhere have taken over BECAUSE the experience of the theater is becoming irrelevant, not because people are ignoring its unique strengths?
    If that happens, do you re-evaluate your direction or fight the tide of culture because you value what theater brings that nothing else can?

  3. Its a really excellent question and at the core that’s the thing I really struggle with. Is loving something and being good at it enough to justify continuing to do it if you do feel like it’s not the most effective/important/meaningful way to reach people? If you sense that you could make a bigger impact some other way, and you think you might be able to tackle that new mode of creation, is there some sense of obligation to try?

    I’m not sure…

    I think before I totally give up and leave the island (which is on my mind a lot these days) I feel obligated to see what happens if I commit to making works that TRULY make use of the things I think theater CAN do that other mediums can’t. I know I’ve not yet given myself permission to make work with that as the mission for a long time. If that still doesn’t work, then there’s some real thinking to do.

  4. Pingback: “Play Play” |

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