Monday, May 16, 2011

necessary theatre 4 | necessary significance

This series of essays originally appeared in theatre programs for the 1998-99 season of Theatre & Company, Kitchener, Ontario, where author Stuart Scadron-Wattles was the producing artistic director.

T&Co was in many ways a sister company to PT. I was very struck by these ideas at the time, and they've been on my mind again recently. Stuart's given me permission to reproduce them here. This is the fourth.

Five Short Essays on Necessary Theatre:
Necessary Significance

A Necessary theatre will find correspondence in the lives of its audience. Many theatre producers seek that by consciously selecting pieces of theatre which will have current relevance for their audiences.We have a socially conscious society here in Canada, and theatres and funding bodies have sought to work with that dynamic to attempt to create Necessary theatre.

With little result, it seems. It is not difficult to form community around social issues; it is just difficult to form an aesthetic community around them. “New” plays dealing with specific issues of once current importance litter the landscape of the Canadian theatre scene. Most of the theatres founded with social/political agendas have either disappeared or broadened their audience. How then, does the Necessary theatre find its audience?

By seeking to be significant, as opposed to relevant. Significance literally refers to the process of signage: something which points in a direction, invites a journey. Necessary theatre becomes significant by finding correspondences between one’s own set of signs (developed though living your life), and those one experiences in the theatre. You know what a chair is, for example. When an actor playing a character sits in one, the act is familiar to you; done in a certain way, the action may even trigger certain memories or understandings in you, and you are engaged. Your heart and mind are responding to what is going on in front and around you.

When it works, Necessary theatre helps you to make sense of that swirling chaos of sensations, memories and emotions: life. It proposes a certain order, an understanding of connections, not necessarily as simple as cause-and-effect, but powerful for its complexity. Things can begin to make sense. At the end of these theatre pieces, we are satisfied, even if we may not quite understand everything rationally. Comedies often have that effect on us by proposing chaos in the first act, complications and further chaos in the second act and resolutions in the third. But dramas and especially tragedies can bring us to that significant sense of order as well.

Of course, Necessary theatre can do the opposite: it can take an ordered understanding-- the one with which we enter the theatre-- and propose that it is not so ordered after all. This is the theatre which is often most puzzling to us, because it questions what we have assumed to be true, and those assumptions have been part of our stability in life. That questioning can even come from a false premise, one which we do not accept as fundamentally true for our lives. We may not believe in ghosts, for instance, but that does not prevent us from allowing Hamlet’s dead father into our imaginary world to ask us whether Denmark is really as sound as it seems.

The power of Necessary theatre to do this kind of work still comes from its significance, however. Necessary theatre purchases its entrance to your heart through resonantly powerful impressions. These impressions may not immediately mean something to you; rather, they seek a meaning in you. Since this happens at a very deep level, these impressions affect us in a way which we often cannot immediately express.

Because of this, it is important to realize that Necessary theatre does not always have an immediate effect. I often leave good pieces of theatre with a strong desire not to discuss the piece for a while, usually because I do not yet have even the thoughts - much less the words - to express what I have just witnessed. (I have great respect for those reviewers who are capable of writing cogent thoughts on art to very tight deadlines.)

A Necessary theatre audience should be given and should give itself permission not to have to respond to an artistic work as soon as it is over, because the work of the work is not finished. Indeed, it may not be so for days.

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