A friend (Michael LaRoy, in fact - the guitar player for GODSPELL) recently posted a quote from Rainer Maria Rilke: "A work of art is good if it has grown out of necessity. In this manner of its origin lies its true estimate: there is no other."
Which got me thinking about this question of necessity and art, and things a friend of mine was thinking about a decade or so ago.
During the 1998-99 season at Theatre & Company in Kitchener-Waterloo, artistic director Stuart Scadron-Wattles published a series of reflections on something he called "Necessary Theatre," with one brief essay in each of the season's five mainstage shows.
T&Co was in many ways a sister company to PT. I was very struck by these ideas at the time, and precipitated by the Rilke quote, they've been on my mind again recently. Stuart's given me permission to reproduce them here. This is the first.
Five Short Essays on Necessary Theatre:
Necessary or Obligatory?
by Stuart Scadron-Wattles
During the gasoline rationing days of World War II, one was supposed to ask oneself a searching question: Is this trip really necessary? It has become for me, a question which I increasingly ask myself about pieces of theatre in these times of relatively scarce live performance, and I commend that question to you in somewhat modified form: What makes this piece of theatre necessary? From that question, we end up describing two kinds of theatre experience: the Necessary and the Obligatory. Allow me to explain:
Necessary Theatre results in the kind of production from which you depart resolved to tell someone about your experience. In Necessary Theatre, artists and audience imagine together and, as a consequence, both are led beyond themselves.
Obligatory Theatre is its opposite. There, artists and audience attend together (sometimes even with the required skill and attentiveness), but they never meet. Everyone may agree that the performance had merit and the audience interest, but there it remains. Artists and audience depart an Obligatory Theatre experience with that distant satisfaction of cultural duty done.
Necessary Theatre begins by taking one on an artistic journey, and ends by being a valued companion to one’s own life journey. Here, we explore other selves only to return to ourselves, that we may know ourselves anew. This is the literal meaning of recreation: at the end of Necessary Theatre, your self is re-created as you reassemble it from the exploratory thoughts and feelings inspired by the imaginary world of the theatre.
Obligatory Theatre presents, depicts, and even challenges, but never involves: all it can do is present something to you. There is occurrence, but not event. As an audience member, one can be aware of artistic skill and even greatness in Obligatory theatre, but one is not touched. As an artist, one can present one’s best work, but there is a sense that it has been wasted: Skillful sex without lovemaking. Core commitment without involvement. Provincial politics without leadership.
Entire productions can be Necessary or Obligatory, but most productions have a bit of both. Poorly rendered exposition in a theatre piece which later grips the soul, for example, will result in a mixed experience.
Both artists and audience participate in determining whether and where the theatre experience is Necessary or Obligatory. Necessary Theatre, for example, requires the participative imagination of everyone: actors, audience, and crew. Obligatory Theatre can be the result of the influence of an inattentive audience upon a group of imaginative artists or the result of an artistically rigid performance for an expectantly perceptive audience.
Here at Theatre & Company, we know that we have produced both kinds of theatre. So we ask variations of the question as we select scripts, as we cast, as we create, and as we perform. We ask it individually, and as an ensemble. We commend it to you as our audience.
Is this piece of theatre Necessary? Our aim is to have that question answered with a resounding “yes” from both sides of the lights.