Efficiency

Quick note : for those interested in the women in theater conversation there’s more coming your way. I am trying to get some more data together and want to also include some thoughts about the data that I’ve already put out there, so stay tuned later this week for that.

But for today: Something I’ve been thinking about lately is efficiency.

On some levels one could say that theater isn’t efficient at all. There’s nothing easy about creating work, in fact the easier the work is to create, the more rote or robotic, the less I personally tend to be interested in it. This is efficiency for efficiency sake alone.

This is not what I mean when I ask, “Can we be more efficient?” No, I am asking if we can be more streamlined in the path to the goal we strive towards.  In other words, how can we be most efficient at the need we are sating?

And to do that let us first ask: why do we do it, what is the base need to create artwork? I think it’s something to do with our own necessity to express and the need of others to listen. We are telling stories, making music, and moving bodies and in experiencing those things our audiences uncover something about themselves. It’s like a communion of infinite variety – magically shifting the experience of one into the bodies of many.

On one level, the standard four week process is rather efficient, isn’t it? We all know what to expect, when things will arrive, how the art will progress from start to finish. There are, of course, deviations but there is a kind of simplicity in knowing how the process is supposed to work. But is it efficient at delivering this communion? Does this process get us closer quicker to the ability to give a piece of ourselves with those that might take it in?

I don’t know.

Increasingly, in this time when many theaters are losing funding and audience base, I hear stories of shows with rehearsal process that are condensed to three (two?!) weeks of rehearsal. There is this way that we say, there’s simply less room, less resource, less money, so we have to be more efficient with our time. But. But. But… Is it? Is it more efficient? We have shortened the time we take, we have lessened the money that costs, but have we made ourselves more efficient at the ultimate goal?  Many days I look at that model and wonder if there’s actually a palpable difference in the outcome. Or is this simply a more efficient means to create something?

I don’t think so.

I think we can feel the difference. I think the audience can too. Even if they can’t articulate why, I think they just know when someone has just started working out a first good idea instead of the third, forth, eight, tenth, deeper and more realized choice. I think this kind of efficiency gets the “job” done, but to what end? I think it prizes the output over the process. I think it makes the external trappings of the product the parts that we place the most value on.

Naïve. Simple. Dreamer. Call me what you want. You can tell me that I don’t know what it’s like to work in the “real” world.

But I wonder if we all have to define “real” art in the same way. I wonder if we haven’t all deluded ourselves into accepting a much narrower definition of our form than is necessary.

When you started creating theater, what was the context?

Was it in a flashy space? Was it with hugely expensive surroundings? I doubt it.

If you’re like me it was in a class in a basement without any stuff. You fell in love with that first moment you saw an actor really transform into a character. You swooned a bit when a designer took a single light and flashed it across a wall in a way you’d never seen before. You adored the director that first changed how you thought about a scene. One found grandeur in such tiny things, and that somehow in all this nothing, something was able to emerge. It is in the midst of this dingy room with its banged up chairs that we find our capacity to create.

And that, I think, is the real efficiency. It’s that with nothing that is tangibly expensive or valuable we create beauty or pain, feelings that are deep and real and genuinely meaningful. We make something so real out of things that are so obviously made up.

The traditional stage with set and lights and sound and costumes and velvet curtain and seats and air conditioning, and lobby and box office – is it efficient?

I don’t think so.

What is theater? Ask yourself. Is it a script?  Is it character? Is it telling a story? Is it moving people through space? Is it visual splendor? Is it interplay of light, sound or object over time? Is it some combination of all of these things?

If you know what theater is to you, then ask yourself if you are getting there most efficiently?

Is that other stuff getting in the way of actually getting to the real thing?

Is that push towards “professionalism” actually pulling you from making the thing you desire?

Is it possible that theater is at its core something more basic, more internal, more directly accessed than we’ve made it out to be? If so, can we be brave enough to do it more efficiently?  Can we shed some of these trappings for efficiency’s sake and preserve what is most needed?

The past few months, I keep thinking about this question, about whether I could take all that money I spend on building things that I will tear down in a few weeks, and instead create something in a space that already exists. I wonder if I need to budget for all that stuff. I wonder if anyone would even miss it if the work was good enough. It seems so much more efficient. What if I could create a theatrical experience in which the audience interacted directly with the performance? What if I didn’t even need “actors?” What if I could put a “play” into a box and hand it to someone? Is that possible?

I don’t know.

But I feel like I need to ask the question. I feel like I need to find out.

A

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