I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what theatre is and why we do it. It sounds like an easy thing to think about until you actually start thinking about it.
Someone I know recently referred to himself as a “provocateur” in how he creates his art, and that it’s not enough for him to just “do theatre.” I’ve known quite a few people who see themselves primarily as something along those lines– trying to “awaken” people, or provide some kind of “transformative experience.” And I think those can be laudable goals, to a certain extent. But what does it mean to “just do theatre”? Is being a “provocateur” more than “just doing theatre”?
I’m not sure if the “provocateur” approach can be, ultimately, a successful starting point all on its own. Provoke them to do what? Rush Limbaugh and Anne Coulter are two of the best provocateurs in the game. So are middle-schoolers. Provoking people isn’t a laudable goal in and of itself. Awakening people to what? Transforming them from what to what? This is unspecific language that is ultimately self-serving, focusing more on our personal importance to the process than on the work itself. That’s not to say artists aren’t important– that bears repeating, especially now as our importance to culture is under constant attack– but that, if our goals are audience-focused, we’re going to need to think more deeply about what we’re doing.
In the ensuing discussion with the “provocateur,” we both discovered that he meant so much more than what that word implies. He meant something for which there is no single word. He wants to engage his audience’s hearts, minds, souls, and bodies. He wants to reach down past the dross of the everyday and into a place of deeper meaning, deeper connection. And now we’re getting somewhere.
This type of engagement is about communion; it creates community. It’s one of the deepest, oldest human impulses. Hell, it’s a primate impulse. Be with me. See me. Hear me. Know me. Share this experience with me.
I’ve had hundreds of discussions with hundreds of theatremakers, and when you dig deep enough, it all hits this same foundation: engagement, communion. How do we accomplish this communion? How do we, in the context of what we do as theatre artists, engage others in a way that creates communion?
Anyone who tells you that what we now call “audience engagement” is the pathway to this is just completely wrong. It *can* be, but just providing ways for your audience to interact with your work will not mean they’re automatically engaged with it in a meaningful way. Anyone can write on a wall, stand on a stage, sing a song, or tweet while being bored out of their minds and wishing they were at home playing Mass Effect. The techniques we use to “engage” audiences will not, in and of themselves, work. They can be very powerful, and they can be boring as all fuck.
How we make “audience engagement” techniques work is the same way we make theatre work: narrative. We’re storytellers.
When I say “narrative,” I don’t mean any one kind of narrative. A narrative doesn’t have to be linear. It doesn’t have to be traditionally structured in any way. Theatre is a narrative art form, and if you create an “audience engagement experience” without any kind of compelling narrative, you’re not going to successfully engage them.
While some people are quick to denigrate the term “storyteller” because it doesn’t sound important to them, theatre is, at its heart, about stories. How we choose to tell those stories differs from artist to artist and genre to genre, but the human brain understands the world through narrative. It’s why religion is conveyed primarily through narrative. Narrative and poetry are how we convey all the mysteries of our existence; narrative and poetry are how we convey all the secrets of the human heart. To be a storyteller is to be both the keeper of and the maker of our culture– past, present, and future. HOW you choose to tell those stories is up to you. But we’re all storytellers in this art.
In theatre, “poetry” can be what we usually mean by the word– unexpected juxtapositions of language that create an insightful, emotional impact– but we also have the luxury of creating it in the physical world– movement, sound, sets, lights, costumes, props, the bodies of the actors, the way those bodies tell the story being told. Poetry works in service to the narrative. It illuminates it or cracks it open or reframes it or explains it or even problematizes it (Shakespeare in particular loves that last one).
We start with something we want to say– a story we want to tell– and then we decide how we need to tell that story. The audience comes in the door and sits with us while we tell the story in the way we need to tell it. Maybe they participate in the telling; maybe not. But we– like an old woman sitting at a paleolithic campfire and every other storyteller in between that woman and us– create a world, open that world, and throw it like a blanket around our audience. Be in this world with me, feel its joy, its pain, its magic.
And through that ritual of storytelling– whether we’re creating a traditional, linear narrative or an experimental, non-linear movement piece, or anything in between— we’re attempting to engage, to create communion. When we’re successful, when we achieve that (because of course we don’t always, and we have to make room for failure if we ever wish to succeed), that engagement, that communion, can be provocative, transformative, or awakening. It can raise political consciousness. It can create an emotional journey. It can change minds, heal hearts, elevate souls. It can do ANYTHING, because a group of people fully engaged in a narrative is one of the singlemost immensely powerful tools available to the human experience.
There’s a wealth of information about the neurology of storytelling– how the human brain experiences narrative and is enriched by it is especially interesting. Our brains see the world, and other humans, as a collection of narratives. When we say we’re “storytellers,” we’re saying we engage other humans through the deepest, most primitive, most mysterious means possible. We’re talking soul to soul when we tell stories. What binary is to computers, narrative is to humans.
And this is what I think theatre is for: gathering a group of people to enter into a world wherein a story can be created, shared, and fully experienced in real, physical space and time by both creators and audience. Our stories contain all the mysteries of our existence, all the secrets of our hearts, all our hopes and fears and dreams and longing and joy and pain and everything that makes us who we are, who we were, who we fear becoming, who we want to be, what we dream we can be, at the deepest, most meaningful level our brains can comprehend.
So don’t shy away from the term “storyteller.” It’s one of the most meaningful labels we have for ourselves as theatremakers. It contains within it everything we’re trying to do with audience engagement, everything we’re trying to do when we say we want to “take risks” or “provide a transformative experience.” Everything we are and everything we will be are made of narrative. Theatre is the most powerful expression of the intensely human magic that is narrative.