It makes me sad that there is no convincing term to describe the kinds of theatre I love. Over the years there have been many attempts to coin such a term and make it stick: experimental, radical, theatre of cruelty, the alienation effect, ontological, post-modern, post-mainstream, conceptual, contemporary, devised, post-dramatic, etc. However, none of these terms feel particularly compelling to me.
Theatre reminds me of politics. The fate of the kind of theatre I love reminds me of the fate of the radical left over the course of the past century. One way or another, the conservative block always finds a way to suppress or absorb all more adventurous paths. In theatre, when I hear someone speak of the need for a ‘return to the classics’, it reminds me of fascism. This might be unfair, but it is how I honestly feel.
The radical left certainly has its share of problems, but without an effective left-wing presence everything simply drifts further and further to the right. Without anything concrete to back it up, critique gradually becomes meaningless.
There are many formal, structural and process-based qualities that characterize the kind of theatre I love:
- a rejection of artifice as the basis for theatre
- a foregrounding of the human dimension of the performer and the human dimension of the performance situation
- performance as a vulnerable activity
- treatment of the physical space of performance as a real, shared space
- theoretical and philosophical thematic content and research
- an ongoing, long-term collaborative creation process with the wisdom to avoid stasis
- room for imperfection
- constantly starting from scratch
- attempting to significantly push beyond what one already knows
However, none of these qualities particularly define what I actually most love about it.
Sometimes I suspect what I love about it is how improbable it is that something so compelling and alive can potentially, perhaps only momentarily, exist within the structurally conservative world of theatre, a world in which there is always this intense pressure to sell tickets, to please people, always the fear that when you walk on stage the audience will see too much of you, will see things about you that you don’t want them to see. Sometimes it seems to me that the process of rehearsal is simply a process of emotional armoring: we will make everything absolutely perfect so no one will ever see who or what we really are.
Everything about the theatre setting conspires towards something manageable and safe: the fact that on stage one is exposed, the fact that you have to repeat it over and over and over again, the fact that if no one comes the work is considered a failure, the fact that it is ephemeral and does not last, that its history is in a constant state of evaporation, the fact that it is collaborative, the fact that it is funded by the government, the fact that tradition hangs over it like a blood-soaked sword, all the various spoken and unspoken levels of hierarchy, administration and authority.
How can one possibly create something alive and vital within such a deadened and deadening space? How might the radical left re-invent itself in a manner that might, even in a small way, begin to make the world more humane and people more emancipated? I have no idea if such an analogy is fair, but if it is not, that makes it only one of the many unfair things that, day after day, somehow keep me going.
[This text was written for the program of the Perfect Performance Festival in Stockholm which took place from October 23-31, 2009.]