What Theatre is For

Arisa Bega in Monica Byrne's What Every Girl Should Know at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Arisa Bega in Monica Byrne’s What Every Girl Should Know at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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.

Dennis Yen, Mike Delaney, and Seth Thygesen in Twelfth Night at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Dennis Yen, Mike Delaney, and Seth Thygesen in Twelfth Night at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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.

Chris Quintos in Joshua Conkel's The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Chris Quintos in Joshua Conkel’s The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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.

Luisa Frasconi and Maria Giere Marquis in Joshua Conkel's The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Luisa Frasconi and Maria Giere Marquis in Joshua Conkel’s The Chalk Boy at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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).

Mike Delaney in Lauren Gunderson's Toil and Trouble at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshrie Isaacs.

Mike Delaney in Lauren Gunderson’s Toil and Trouble at Impact Theatre. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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.

Jonathon Brooks in Cameron McNary's Of Dice and Men. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

Jonathon Brooks in Cameron McNary’s Of Dice and Men. Photo by Cheshire Isaacs.

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.

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6 thoughts on “What Theatre is For

  1. I taught drama to Middle Schoolers for years. I invented a wide variety of community building experiences for them. I also tried to listen to their stories and help them grapple with the stuff of Middle School thru drama. Most of the time, it worked…and many of them who are now adults get in touch with me and tell me how much “Clan drama” and “Bag of Puppets” and “The meaning of my name monologues”… meant to them. Educating the future audiences and patrons of the theatre was my mission…I think it is essential to keep drama classes K thru 12 for students. It sounds a bit “dramatic” but I believe the future of the world depends on it. Thanks for your blog…it makes me think.

  2. What a fantastically written and clear piece. I often struggle with the exact same question – why do I do theatre? At least I struggle with the right words to answer it (which, as a writer, frustrates me to no end). I’ve always come to the same conclusion that you have, that I’m a storyteller and I love telling stories and need to tell stories and love doing it surrounded by other people (as opposed to writing them down in a novel where the audience can experience it in the safety of their own privacy).

    Thank you, though, for legitimizing this answer and empowering me with your explanation of how you came to the same conclusion. Makes me feel less alone.

  3. graysea says:

    I learned to define my role as a storyteller by pushing myself to learn about forms of art that don’t necessarily require a narrative – dance, painting, music. One day it dawned on me that I always try to force a narrative onto these forms; to listen for the rise and fall of action, to invent character backgrounds, to think critically about the dialogue between the art piece and the audience… but some times, a piece of art wasn’t even intended to wind up in a museum! It’s so hard for me to grasp “art for art’s sake”, art that might not have been intended for an audience, or might not have a moral or a meaning. Art that is just there to be pretty or art that exists to evoke personal emotions; rather than (necessarily) connect with our fellow humans, maybe it simply helps us connect with ourselves? Or maybe I’m missing the point entirely. Maybe a narrative, and a dialogue with the audience, is always, somehow, implied.

    I LOVE the metaphor “What binary is to computers, narrative is to humans.” I’d like to know how you feel about art that does not require narrative (dance and music), or narrative-based art that isn’t performative (books, graphic novels, cave paintings).

    Thanks for making me think! This stuff is fun.
    Keep telling stories.

    • I think dance is narrative told in movement, and certainly music has a narrative. Once upon a time I was an opera singer, and, even when music doesn’t employ narrative language, it still has a very clear emotional narrative. A well-written symphony will take you on an emotional journey, no question, and a well-written short piece will do that in little.

      I believe plastic art (painting, sculpture) is all narrative-based. “Evoking personal emotions” is without a doubt a narrative function. It’s impossible to look at a pre-modern painting without seeing some kind of story, and once the modern stuff gets going around Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase, there’s still narrative, albeit sometimes one between the art and the viewer (for example, the narrative involved in challenging a viewer’s conception of “art” or “beauty”) rather than a story being depicted as in, say, Jan van Eyck’s Arnolfini Wedding, of which I had a poster on my wall as a teenager in case you were wondering just how big of a nerd I am. Ha.

      I love non-performative, narrative-based art. I love that theatre functions in a different way than poetry or novels, but all narrative art is important, and all narrative art can do things the other forms can’t do. I’d call film non-performative because, like photography, what you’re looking at is a highly manipulated recording of a performance rather than a performance itself. But even the most abstract film is narrative-based.

      Thank you for your kind words!

      • graysea says:

        In the vein of DuChamp: what do you make of the “fountain”? 😛 I guess the narrative there is the interaction with the audience. Art to piss people off is some times my favorite. 🙂

  4. As the self-designated provocateur in question (although thank you for the anonymity, Melissa), what I’m really pointing to with this term is the desire to go beyond simply “doing a good show.” This points to a number of questions, some of which you’re naming, and more for me:
    Why do we do theatre?
    How can we do it better?
    Why do most American theatres follow the same theatrical conventions found in the late 19th century?
    How can we make theatre more than the novelty it has become (compared to the popularity of things like movies, TV, and Xbox), and make it so engaging (not to be confused with audience participation, which is not a default answer) that audiences are wildly growing and raving for more?

    That last one is really what’s of most interest to me. I could use terms like transformation or awakening or such, but mostly I want the art form to which I’ve dedicated a lot of years to have so much life breathed into it that we have to start doing it in stadiums (or wherever) because the demand is so big. But maybe that’s just me.

    A note on narrative: we can create it intentionally… or simply leave it to the audience to construct it on their own, to some degree, which they tend to do regardless of theatre professionals’ intentions. Not that we should abandon intentional narrative, that is. I just like the subjective approach as well, which I find deems an audience intelligent enough to create something that is meaningful for them amidst an experience.

    These are my exploratory thoughts (okay, maybe obsessions) that I’m still seeking to experientially answer. Thanks for a good article. As usual.

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