Friday, February 27, 2009

Rich v. Poor Theatre or Slimming Down in 2009

We fight then to discover, to experience the truth about ourselves; to tear away the masks behind which we hide daily. We see theatre - especially in its palpable, carnal aspect - as a place of provocation, a challenge the actor sets himself and also, indirectly, other people. Theatre only has a meaning if it allows us to transcend our stereotyped vision, our conventional feelings and customs, our standards of judgment - not just for the sake of doing so, but so that we may experience what is real and, having already given up all daily escapes and pretenses, in a state of complete defenselessness unveil, give, discover ourselves.

--Jerzy Grotowski

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking this past week about the Polish director and theatre practitioner, Jerzy Grotowski and his ideas about performance and theatre. Most people are familiar with him or his work. Many of his interviews and thoughts are captured in the book, TOWARDS A POOR THEATRE.

I actually got to know his work when I was in my two year Meisner acting program taught by a demanding, wonderful, inspiring and highly intelligent teacher by the name of Bill Esper (probably the greatest living teacher of Meisner on the planet who taught people like Sam Rockwell, Paul Sorvino, Jeff Goldlum and others). Bill assigned us all historical artists to do research on. Some got actors like Eleanora Duse or Lily Langtry. Some got directors like Harold Clurman. He gave me Grotowski. I think he knew I would totally dig it and I totally did…Grotowski’s ideas blew my mind in a lot of ways (but then, it was my first or second year living in NYC so a lot of things really blew my mind).

Grotowski was heavily influenced by ground-breaking theorists who came before him, artists like Artaud, Meyerhold, Brecht and Stanislavsky. Consequently, many theatre luminaries working today have been heavily influenced by Grotowski, mainly Peter Brook, Augusto Boal, Eugenio Barba, Richard Schechner, Joseph Chaikin, the Wooster Group, and anyone else doing any kind of experimental work.

Grotowski came to some major and influential conclusions, one of which is that when you strip everything away, what remains as the essential elements of theater are the actors and the audience.

(He was very much into stripping things away, calling this idea “via negativa” and used many, many strenuous and amazing physical and emotional exercises to break down actors in his training and find more truthful impulses)

So he called this idea of performance which involves the actor/spectator relationship: Poor Theatre.



“The actor, at least in part, is creator, model and creation rolled into one-“

Everything in theatre revolves around the actor/spectator relationship. This element is what differentiates theatre from film, TV, radio, the internet, etc. In fact, he even believed that the actors could behave like priests in a spiritual ceremony, elevating the audience to a higher plane and creating a catharsis or spiritual healing.

(As the years progressed, he got further and further away from any type of performance at all, some of which is mentioned in the classic movie, My Dinner with Andre, starring Wallace Shawn and Andre Gregory. If you haven’t see it yet, go rent it. Right now. Then you can read the rest of this blog…no, really…).

What’s beautiful about this idea is that first of all, the core elements of theatre is focused around the connection of two or more people. That’s what we are about, isn’t it? People. Theatre is a collaborative and communal event. Also what’s beautiful is what is not included in his basic idea of theater (not that you can’t have it, but that it’s not essential), are the following trappings which we as theater folks and audience members seem to just take for granted:

Sound Design (music, sfx, etc.)
An actual theater auditorium or other specific playing space

To experiment on his ideas, Grotowski created his Laboratory Theater. His concentration was not on giving entertainment, but on experimenting with his actors and eventually presenting the work to audiences (as that defines theater). Really, though, another reason he called it a laboratory is because a “laboratory” is less threatening in name when you are living in Poland than “theater”. Theaters have been known to stir up the people and cause riots. Theater can be a social force. But a laboratory, oh, that’s just scientific experiments…no harm there. Grotowski was smart that way. Also, more people are likely to fund a “laboratory” than a theater. And really, why shouldn’t they?

Now the opposite of Poor Theatre is, of course, Rich Theatre.

Rich Theatre is pretty much most of the theatre you see these days, especially by the huge regional theaters throughout this country, theaters that have operating budgets of anywhere between 3 to 10 million dollars a year.

When you see Rich Theater, you know it because the theatre wants you to know it. When you walk into the theater to see their show, you will first notice the design, or more specifically, the set. They usually spend a lot of money to make it look “really real”. So if it’s a play like “A Streetcar Named Desire”, it looks like a “real” apartment in the French Quarter. The costumes are really real, etc. This is not to say that the actors performances are not brilliant at times, or that the actor/spectator relationship isn’t explored, but there is a lot of focus on the spectacle. You see it a lot in glittery Shakespeare productions and big budget musicals.

Rich Theatre has a higher price tag, both on its production costs and on its ticket price. Hence, many people who see this theater are rich themselves.

So, what’s my point? Why am I bringing up all this 60s hippie-dippy nonsense, this hocus-pocus, silly experimental theatre and theory?

Well, like I said, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about Grotowski this past week. One reason is that I am going to be going to a theatre conference in Chicago focusing on these ideas of Poor Theater (and talking about the show I just did last Fall which was very much Poor Theatre)

But I am also thinking about this a lot because of the economy. Which frankly, if you haven’t noticed, sucks.

Here’s what I read this morning from the Chronicle of Philanthropy about what is happening in theaters across the country (as it has been happening large corporations and small business, as well).

Nonprofit Theaters Plan Layoffs and Smaller Shows, Survey Finds

A survey of American nonprofit theaters found that more than half plan to offer cheaper tickets and nearly as many will eliminate administrative staff positions in expectation of shrinking sales and fund raising, Bloomberg news service reports.

The Theatre Communications Group surveyed 210 member organizations last month. Most reported that they are producing new calculations of expenses for the coming year, with theaters that have budgets exceeding $10-million reducing spending by an average of $750,000. A third of companies said they would alter programs to include shows with smaller casts.

Full: From

Fiscal Pulse Survey from TCG:

Now, I gotta admit, I have two reactions to this…

The first is that it sucks. It sucks that everyone in every aspect of the economic spectrum, from large to small businesses, to schools, arts organizations etc. are all having to do cutbacks and people are losing their jobs and their homes. I know that several theaters are forcing employees to go on furloughs.

But there is another part of me that thinks this might not be altogether such a bad thing for theatre in this country.

Okay, to be clear, it is NOT GOOD that theatre people are losing their jobs or forced to take time off. It is not good that theatre is losing funding, because it has never had enough funding anyway.

But a wakeup call that good theater does not equal big sets and pretty costumes. Because a part of me thinks, regional theater employees wouldn’t have to go on furlough if you cut down on your production costs, (ie build less monstrous sets, less money on costumes, makeup and lighting).

I’m not saying don’t ever do big shows or musicals or always do bare bones Shakespeare. Everyone likes to see huge spectacle now and then. But too often, this has become the norm for theater and so the audience has expected that instead of expecting to be moved, entertained, and enlightened. We focus not on the connections of people but on the really cool stuff. We get distracted. No one is to blame, it just happens.

So the economy is teaching us we need to focus on what makes theatre so great. And theatre is great and will never die and many, many regional theaters are going to come out of this just fine, if not stronger. What’s sad is that some regional theaters may not survive. And that, again, just sucks.

This is not a cut and dry issue. I’m not the guy with any answers on how, or if, the American regional theater needs revitalizing. And the fact remains, if funding the arts was actually a priority we wouldn’t be in such dire straits. If making art wasn’t dependent on tickets and applying for grant after grant just to stay afloat, perhaps we could concentrate less on marketing and defending our very existence and actually concentrating more on making our art.

I’m just a director and playwright who is looking around and thinking, everyone is finding creative ways of dealing with this economic shitstorm, so why aren’t we as creative artists coming up with even better ways for ourselves?

When I think of the most inspiring moments of theater I have witnessed, I don’t think about the chandelier in Phantom of the Opera (not to say it wasn’t cool, because it was…).

I think about the people. I think about New Yorkers weeping together as they watched Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses a month after 9/11. I think about Kevin Spacey barreling through the text of Eugene O’Neill’s The Iceman Cometh or the balletic movement and innovative performance of Theatre de Complicite’s Mnemonic or the NYC production of the Revenger’s Tragedy by Red Bull Theater which niftly used curtains and lots of blood to stage a lot of murders.

As playwrights, we sometimes lock ourselves into writing for a small stage. For the past several decades, more and more original plays have four or less characters and one set. Why? It’s cheaper.

For the next few years, it may not be a bad strategy to work on that two or three-hander script, since that’s what theater companies are going to do next season instead of the big cast show.

But I am a firm believer that we can still create on larger canvases, even in the worst of economic times. We can a write a thirty character epic; we just have to be creative and innovative in the construction and execution of the story. And then the next step is actually giving some suggestions to the director and/or producers on ways of doing it.

Because it can be done, just look at Shakespeare.

When Shakespeare wrote a scene that was set in the Forest of Arden, did the Globe players spend a bunch of money for the set designer to make trees and then have a bunch of stage hands move them onstage? Or have sound cues with twittering birds? No. Shakespeare simply had a character say, “Here we are in the forest of Arden”. Add actors who believe in that imaginary environment and the audience is instantly transformed to the garden of Arden.

People love Shakespeare because he is a master dramatist for many reasons. He wrote for all levels of people, both the commoner (aka the groundlings) standing on the dirt by the stage, as well as the nobleman sitting up in the booth seats. His work is universal, not just because of the poetic text, the stories, the characters, or the psychological depth to which he seemed to know his fellow man, but because we can perform his work with or without any production elements. When you add beautiful designs, it can lift the show to certain heights (just to let you know that I do love and appreciate designers and don’t want to eliminate them). But at the core is the basic actor/spectator relationship.

Shakespeare is Poor Theater.

1 comment:

Jenna said...

Huzzah! I would put in my two cents for academic theatre that we need plays with middle to big size casts, but that don't require much in terms of spectacle (as just like every where else we are feeling the pinch). Shakespeare certainly fits the bill.