In his recent collection of essays called simply Theatre, American playwright David Mamet reminds us that «the theatre is always dying». Mamets emphasis on theaters protracted demise is as useful as it is misplaced, however, since the process is always and simultaneously regenerative. Forecasts of theatres demise have, of course, dominated twentieenth century critical discourse on theater as technological changes to performance emerged and proliferated. Cinema would be the death of theatre, we were told, but even early cinema mimicked the theatrical format, group attendance at a specific venue, usually a theater, often a converted music hall, so that the community function of performance, a recasting of theatres origins in the fifth century B. C. where it was a major religious, ceremonial, aesthetic, political and social experience, at once excoriating and pleasurable, remained. Television was theaters next apparent replacement, yet even that more personal medium, which, according to Marshall McCluhan in Understanding Media (1964), was more medium than message, the technological form embedded in and as the content, often generated and signaled a change in our religious, political, ceremonial environment. For McCluhan television was a cool medium that functioned, in his famous if disputed metaphor, more like a light bulb than, say, a book, or live theatre. It creates a space almost content free and thus requires more participation than a hot medium since the former is low definition. Yet even for television, families gathered in that illuminated space at prescribed times, at least until the proliferation of cheap appliances put the machine in every room of the house save the toilet, and recording devices freed audiences of time constraints. Time and space no longer needed to be shared, and images in “cool” media were not prescribed as they were in “hot” media like cinema where participation was low. Television required creative rather than passive viewing. By centurys end, however, the vestiges of that community function of performance had all but vanished as we were offered films and streaming video television on demand and on (almost unsharable) miniaturized, hand held, personal devices. We became each our own community, and the medium got perhaps even cooler, in McCluhans terms.
So what remains for theatre as community becomes virtual and the medium itself becomes the message. For one, theatre or the theatrical has expanded, now seen as segment of a larger entity called performance, and it has evolved, hybridized over the course of the twentieth century, just as McCluhans categories of “hot” and “cool” have hybridized with the advent of movies on TV, say. Moreover, rather than another cultural vehicle for conveying and critiquing master narratives, the glue of cultural cohesion, theatre too became a medium for the presentation of images, often non-narrative and non-representational, and so in many respects “cool.” That is, neither a metaphor nor a representation but an image, and so it eluded equation, definition, but was, in the phrase of Henri Bergson, a bridge between matter and memory, simultaneously material and immaterial, external and internal, a thing and an idea. Beginning with the Futurists, the Dadaists, the Surrealists theatre or performance, that is, acts outside of theatrical confines, got cooler and so more participatory. A theatre of images might itself be something of a hybrid medium, both “hot” and “cool.” As McCluhan explains it, «Any hot medium allows of less participation than a cool one, as a lecture makes for less participation than a seminar, and a book for less than a dialogue» (McCluhan 25). The twenty-first Century has thus witnessed a pattern of performative hybrids, film in live performance, say, used perhaps most brilliantly and seductively in the works like Disappearing Number from Complicité, weaving two love affairs on two continents in two centuries. It went on to win the Olivier Award for Best Play in 2008.
The work of Italian director and playwright Pippo Delbono is another case in point. His play La menzogna (The Lie, or perhaps The Big Lie is more apposite) is presumably a strong left wing, labor focused attack on the inhumanity of global corporations that focuses on an industrial accident at a Thyssen Krupp factory on the fifth and sixth of December 2007 that resulted in the death of seven employees. Videos of company propaganda featuring children who express pride in the fact that their parents work for Thyssen Krupp since thereby they are building a bright future for us all and clips of religious speakers bemoaning the fact that the worlds wealth is in the hands of a very few people are folded into the performance. For the most part, however, the performance featured a series of neo-surrealist images, Fellini-like vignettes that seem to have little to do with the plays politics as Delbono created Surrealist costume balls, offered transvestite posturing, tango performance; he mimicked television commercials, used images of a dictatorial Berlusconi looking remarkably like Jack Nicolson, included a pastiche of music from Stravinski, Wagner, and the sultry voice of Juliette Greco. His theatre troupe Compagnia Pippo Delbono, regularly integrates performers who are mentally challenged or autistic, the most famous of whom is Bobó. The political message is hot, if often occluded, while the theatricality, the performance itself, is cool, in all the senses of that term. If such hybrid theatre is dying that message is news to the substantial audiences devoted to Delbono.
Moreover, hybrid forms of theater are evident in the global digital broadcast of musical theatrical performances. In 2009-10, for instance, Londons Royal National Theatre began to broadcast its hit plays “live” to movie theatres worldwide, including Complicités Disappearing Number and Dion Bouccicaults nineteenth century farce, London Assurance, among others. Glyndebourne Festival and New Yorks Metropolitan Opera performances are regularly so broadcast as well. Much is being produced by a group called Highbrow.tv, which in the summer of 2010 also offered Traverse Live, short, new 30-minute plays or performance pieces from Edinburghs famed Traverse Theatre, works thereafter archived and available on-demand. But the broadcasts have also become part and expanded the reach of the most famous contemporary theater festival in the world, the month-long Edinburgh Theatre Festival, which dominates the theatre world for the entire month of August. With such broadcasts audiences for the Edinburgh festival became virtual as well as actual. Whether or not Highbrow remains or develops into a major player in such “live” or real-time broadcasts is less at issue than the fact that it has opened the door to another kind of performance, or perhaps has just stepped further through a door already opened by YouTube. (See for example director Richard Eyres promotion of the Traverse project on: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tHATTYDSQts)
Something of a de-centered, barely controlled pandemonium, a Dionysian spirit, characterizes the Edinburgh Theatre Festival, or more particularly the open access Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which blurs the distinction among traditional theatres, makeshift spaces, and the street as many groups and individuals perform ad hoc, en plein air, music, mimes, puppet shows, magic shows, circus acts, performances scripted and unscripted in all their diversity and perversity, thousands of performances over the month of August documented and scheduled in the Festivals huge catalogue - and thousands more unscheduled, uncatalogued, impromptu acts, hundreds daily as Edinburgh itself becomes the stage or circus tent.
Such summer festivals have proliferated in Avignon, Spoleto (U.S. and Italy), and in urban centers like the Festival dAutomne in Paris and the Dublin Theatre Festival (now sadly scarred with corporate branding, the Ulster Bank Dublin Theatre Festival), among others. And more specialized theater festivals are as prolific, drawing the like-minded to particular locals, rural and urban, ranging from Shakespeare festivals world-wide to the likes of the New York International Fringe Festival, which boasts of having nurtured Debbie Does Dallas and Urinetown, or the International Cringe Festival, which touts «Bad Plays, Bad Musicals, Bad Films». (See http://nyartists.org/festivals.html) Such summer or autumn festivals may be as close as our contemporary culture comes to the semi-annual Dionysian Theatre Festivals of Athens on hillsides that produced a natural theatron.
Furthermore, performance has been a regular part of political action and street protests, most evident since the 1960 anti-war movement when theater led something of a cultural revolution, a transvaluation of values. American theater groups like Julian Beck and Judith Malinas Living Theatre, Peter Schumanns Bread and Puppet Theatre, and Ronnie Daviss San Francisco Mime Troupe (the latter two still very active, although Bread and Puppet Theatre now seems on something like permanent retreat in Vermont and Ronnie Davis left the Mime Troupe after its first decade) were central to that cultural revolution we call, all too loosely, the 60s. Dormant on occasion, such theatre remains, lying low, awaiting its moment, as it had in the streets of France not only in May of 1968 but in 2010 as the anti-Sarkozy manifestations not only took on the characteristics of Dionysian street festivals, complete with unions offering wine, beer, mojitos to the marchers, but featured theatre troupes as well, like Ariane Mnouchkines famed international group, Théâtre du Soleil.
For Mnouchkine the street remains an extension of the theatre space, and while she strongly advocates a fully collaborative theatrical process where neither playwright nor director dominates, she herself is a strong director, and on the streets of Paris on 19 October 2010, at the staging area just outside the Manufacture des Gobelins, just below the Place dItalie, amid posters and placards, quotations from famous authors, her troupe gathered in preparation for the march, and the 72 year old Mnouchkine was very much in charge, rehearsing her percussion group and choreographing the movements for the 15 foot high star of the show, a puppet version of the image of freedom, La Liberté, from Delacroixs contemporary masterwork depicting the popular insurrection of 1830, La Liberté guidant le peuple, a painting that evoked the revolution of 1798 as well and in many ways anticipated Picassos Guernica.
La Liberté would come under attack every 200 or so meters by a swarm of rooks, ravens, crows, and almost succumb. La Liberté would twist, flail her arms, and falter under the attack of the ravens only to recover and march on proudly, held aloft and manipulated by six equally proud puppeteers. Each resurrection was greeted by cheers from marchers and sideline spectators as well. If we measure the success of such performance in wholly practical terms, we might consider it a failure since the Sarkozy government did not relent, but as an exercise in political awareness, as a lesson in history, a builder and reinforcer of communities, as an aesthetic experience, it was the most exhilarating theatre I have seen since last I saw Mnouchkines work at the La Cartoucherie. (http://www.dailymotion.com/video/xf8vaw_le-theatre-du-soleil-pour-la-retrai_news#from=embed)
Like La Liberté herself, theatre is always under attack and somehow, even bloodied, resilient enough to keep reviving. One measure of its successful and periodic resuscitation is whether or not artists in the field can not only find work but make a living at their craft. The American theatrical director Alan Schneider was fond of saying that theatrical directors cant make a living on Broadway. They can make a killing, but not a living. That is, if they stage a smash hit they are rewarded substantially, but of course such a system fosters the culture of smash hits. Values here are economic rather than aesthetic. On the other hand, in cultures where the arts are deemed central to the fabric of a culture, where they reflect and shape its identity, and contribute to its unity, where they enhance not so much the local economy (as often they do) but the quality of life, they are often supported by public funds, and in European cultures theater remains central to such an idea of community, not only within individual nations but in the loose collection of nations called the European Community, no accident that final noun. In Europe, and in Italy in particular, theater and theatres play a major role in defining a common culture through the post-war Teatro Stabile Pubblico Regionale, the Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione (a consortium of some 13 theaters) among the most powerful and stable of such institutions. Those regional theatrical Fondazioni are themselves often parts of wider pan-European consortia like the 2007 Prospero project, «un projet, le théâtre en commun», that include six theaters, Le Théâtre National de Bretagne, Théâtre de la Plabe (Belgique), Schaubühne am Lehniner Platz (Berlin), Fundação Centro Cultural de Blemén (Lisboa), Tutkivan Teatterityön Keskus (Tampere), as well as the Emilia Romagna Teatro Fondazione. Prosperos four goals are:
1. To develop the mobility of performances and artists;
2. To contribute to the development of the concept of “European citizenship”;
3. To exploit a common space and a common cultural heritage;
4. To strengthen the intercultural dialogue and to promote the diversity of cultures. [From ERT publicity]
In the United States the arts, theatre in particular, have had to be self-sufficient, to exist in a free market system, and so the taxpayer supported network of the Italian Teatro Stabile and their associated Fondazioni, which allows artists like Pippo Delbono, among many others, to maintain his acting troupe and tour Italy (and abroad) constantly, is non-existent in the United States, despite some very fine regional theatres like The Guthrie Theater in Minneapolis and The Goodman in Chicago, but somehow, even in the United States, without national, public support, or rather where the public is generally hostile to taxpayer support for the arts, theatre survives, actors work, playwrights emerge, theater festivals proliferate. David Mamet may spend the bulk his essays in Theatre attacking that institution, but he continues to write new plays, Race most recently, to direct them, and to understand, to work, and to maintain faith in the powers of this living, changing, cultural institution we call theater.
McCluhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. New York: McGraw Hill, 1964. [Reissued MIT Press, 1994, with introduction by Lewis H. Lapham; reissued by Gingko Press, 2003]
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