Thursday, July 2, 2009

Pleasure and change

Bertolt Brecht warned that if theatre fails to give pleasure, it fails in it's most essential purpose. He also wrote:

We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights, and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself. [A Short Organum for the Theatre - #35 (1948)]

Theatre should bring pleasure as it works to transform all fields of action. Without pleasure, it can't seem to do its job of capturing attention and putting it to work. The action of each character, in almost every play, either carries a seed of change or is a force to stifle the seeds of change planted by other characters. Characters want things, and there has to be a change if they are to get those things. Theatre can be more than the playing of a given game on a defined playing field. Plays, as they express themselves in space and time, can change the game and the playing field itself as the game is being played.

If the theatrical plays fail to be as faithless and unpredictable as our economy, then how can they hope to illuminate the machinations of our present practices of political economy? Today, economics pretends to be science, while denying it is a political process closer to the arts. Certainly accounting statements and balance sheets have been the great works of fiction of the last 40 years. They are works of art that have had a huge impact on the world around them. If fake balance sheets can change the world, why can't plays? The denial of politics, the devotion to gossip and half baked commentary, and a blind faith in fake sciences makes the whole process more brutal than it needs to be. Economists pretend objectivity while initiating and supporting economic warfare through all means possible.

If theatre is a smaller field of action that comes to life within a larger field of action, then directors, actors, designers, technicians and producers must all realize that all the larger fields change daily. Their rules are constantly rewritten before too many people can learn them. A play and its production elements may stay basically the same, but if the structure of oppositions is sound, and the spirit of performance remains alive, the audience will often think the play has been rewritten in light of shifting current events. A well thought out theatrical structure does not need daily reworking if the overall structure is sound and the vision complex, but it must be able to breath with fresh life each and every day.

Actions brought to life within a theatre can lead to fresh perceptions that can arouse the will to act differently in the world outside the theatre, but only if each performance is awake to the moment with all the many resonances of that moment. Theatres resonate. They expand and contract with each shift in action. They expand and contract with each audience that moves into and out of any particular performance. They expand and contract with each production that moves into and out of a theatre's larger season. Theatres expand and contract with the arc created by each season of plays presented within them. Even skeptics believe in the ghosts of past performances that linger in the air.

If a theatre takes its role seriously, it can be the soul of a city, illuminating all the larger expansions and contractions... the local fears and longings that Einstein claimed to be the major motivations of man. Theatre can do that for a city better than films manufactured for the nation and for the world. In theatre, you have to be there, or travel a great distance to be there. If it can genuinely settle into its place and time, it can reach out to the Universe.

The loss of repertory and the scheduling of very short runs robs both artists and audiences of the experience of living with a strong work of art over a substantial period of time. Present conditions preclude the creation of great works of theatrical art. The work of great theatre companies reveals itself over time. In today's world, there is no time because time is money and there is no money. Imagination dwindles under false equations.

Theatre is repetitive and ritualistic, but, like all good ritual, it must stay awake to itself. Unlike more traditional rituals, it also constantly reinvents itself, even exchanging whole ritual structures for one another in a well designed repertory. Is this why Plato hated poets and playwrights? Was it because they didn't hold still and deliver the appropriate and approved truths? Were they too alive?


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