What CAN we do better

Remember this image:

weave string
Is this string the start of a revolution?

Ok. So, picking up from yesterday, let’s say we put a 10 year ban on any play that has a living room, a relationship and ignores the audience. If Naturalism Prohibition begins tomorrow, how do we proceed?

I would propose the first thing we need to get into our heads is that theater, live performance of any kind, will never be able to compete with recorded media in terms of the scale of its reach. PSY can perform for an astounding 80,000 people in Korea and pretty much max the size that live performance can go, and still be equaled in terms of shear numbers of one weekend of a small indie movie rolling out in most major cities or a video game release that can be downloaded immediately online by just about anyone with an internet connection.

We don’t have to view this as a bad thing IF we define our objectives beyond simple numbers of butts in seats (which, by the way, doesn’t have to be the only way evaluate ourselves to the outside world: check out these smart people or look up #newbeans on twitter for some thoughts on that). Instead let us look at the TYPE and DEPTH of experience, a place I would post we might possibly have a chance to not only compete but excel.

What are the super powers of live performance? Here’s a list I come up with:

It doesn’t have to the same every time: Why do people go to concerts when the recording will always have the technological advantage? Because there is something amazing about hearing that thing you know so well anew, with subtle changes and differences that happen that singular time you happen to be there. Ironically, just about everything we do in rehearsal puts an emphasis on just the opposite – on creating a machine that will run the same.

The performers can respond to the viewer: Can we think about this in a wider context than simply “they laugh so we wait a bit longer for the next line”? Is it possible to really give them a role that matters and genuinely requires performers to take them in? Perhaps in such a way that without establishing that connection the performance doesn’t exist? I think so. But I think it might mean really changing what we think a “play” can be.

The audience can interact with the performers/space/experience: Movies don’t do this. But (almost always) neither do we.  This is a huge asset we’re ignoring. Why do people like theme parks and video games? Why the huge success of Sleep No More in NYC? Because there are audiences that like the fact that they can relate to the actors, walk around the world they enter, and in some cases even shape the narrative that occurs. Let’s find those that are craving a chance to be a part of our art beyond just sitting down and passively watching.

You can use ALL your senses: This is another game that we will win over almost all other types of art. You can FEED people, you can make them TOUCH things, you can evoke SMELLS. You can even get them to lie down and change their sense of gravity in relation to their bodies. This is not a trivial advantage. No movie, no matter how good, can ever as realistically convey the taste of a dish as well as actual food.

I’d love to hear additions to this list. I’m sure there are more, and as I think of them, I’ll add them above.

So the question for theater, in my mind, is rather than trying to be less-effective movies, how do we create THIS kind of experience in as rich and rewarding a way as possible? Perhaps in doing that, we might feel less like Gollum clutching the precious (which for the record is mostly how I feel about my audiences – the only thing maintaining my existence and something I can barely hold onto). Can we instead work as a medium towards making these aspects the most important parts of the experience? Can we take that ingenuity and creativity and build new approaches that maximize what we are uniquely suited for?

Let me invoke that image again.

weave string

I like this picture a lot.

It’s from a show I created in 2010 called SURVIVE! It isn’t the flashiest photo from that show. Not by a long shot. It’s not the one I use in work samples. But I think it illustrates what I should be doing.

This photo is a moment between performer and audience that is totally spontaneous, unique, and above all live. Each person in it has a totally individual perspective of the experience that will be different from every other time this scene is performed. Each person has a tactile relationship to the object being shown as well as to each other. Each person is necessary from the story to continue and plays a part in what’s happening, regardless of whether they are actor or audience. Each person has to constantly re-negotiate the contract of participation to continue forward.

And because of that, this tiny moment that might be occur between just three people does something that no movie can do.

Theater can do THIS moment better.

– A

PS – Thanks to JJ Tiziou for taking that amazing picture. http://www.jjtiziou.net


  1. I’m a big fan of liveness in theatre, and I think that while naturalism might be a hindrance (read Mac Wellman on Geezer Theater) I think there are techniques a director can use to help create liveness. I would posit that a live theatre is body-centered and therefore antipsychological. A live theatre can be based in the actual performance of difficult tasks . For example , if an actor has to carry an oak desk across the room – they way he or she says the accompanying line is defined not by some sense memory – but by the difficulty of the physical task. Another way to bering liveness onto the stage is through the use of what I’ll call absolute relative pitch. ( I owe this concept to Ruth Margraff.) Yo know the song , you know why the changes are in tempo, key and melody. What you don’t know is your first note – only the distance between you and the person hitting a note closest to you . If you are a major 3rd down until the first key change – and then a fifth up- it depends on that first note. The person you are working off of is working of a note given by someone else , and so it goes , until you get to the person with the first note i the piece . It’s “enforced liveness” (and singers hate it, usually. It goes against our general desire to be flawless onstage , to look good , and toward another, rougher aesthetic. I worked with The Living Theatre for a number of years , and I have no problem going into the audience, as long as you realize that many audience members don’t want you there . Once , I died in the audience, sprawled on someone’s lap, and they thought it would be amusing to light my hair on fire. Of course , I couldn’t do anything about it because I was dead , and someone rather quickly put me out after realizing they would get no reaction. Those are just some jumbled thoughts on liveness and its attendant risks in the theatre . Good luck with your project – it sounds great and we need more like you.

  2. Pingback: Convention |

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