Be part of the change. Get off the couch and see live performances.
PROMINENT CANADIAN PLAYWRIGHT, director and actor Daniel MacIvor wants to know: What’s theatre for?
In the opening event of the Intrepid Theatre UNO Festival, MacIvor will be presenting his own take on “What’s Theatre For?” No doubt the dialogue that ensues will be a meaty one. My own sense is that theatre is for memory, community and learning.
Theatre companies document and archive their shows, to varying degrees, with videos, photos, and files kept of reviews, posters and programs. But all of that material is only a distant echo of the lived experience of the actual performance. The archive of theatre lives in the memory of its audience.
All of the performing arts share the essential qualities of being transitory and ephemeral in nature. You have to be there, as part of the live encounter between artist and witness, to play your essential role as a conduit of memory.
Our consumer culture tends to frame theatregoing as just another product to purchase and consume, often mindlessly. But what happens if we reframe it in a more mindful way? If we engage with the sense that we, as viewers, hold a privilege and obligation to carry the memory of a performance (if it was, in fact, memorable, of course) into the future?
As a regular and dedicated theatregoer, I carry with me a mental list of the top theatre experiences of my lifetime. These are the highlights of my own personal memory archive. I have to reconsider my list after seeing something that leaves a powerful residue of artistry and meaning. I have wonderful conversations, sometimes in theatre lobbies during intermissions, with colleagues, family and friends about what’s on my list compared to theirs.
It is these kinds of conversations that lead us from our more individual experience of theatre to the more social one of being part of a theatregoing community, together. Like most of us these days, I have an ongoing Netflix addiction. It’s too easy to just stay at home and zone out with another series or movie binge. Going out to see theatre, a concert, dance show or opera takes energy and effort. Fundamentally, the performing arts require you to show up—with brushed hair and suitable attire!
Yet the rewards of showing up are the rewards of becoming, for a couple of hours, part of a community. This community enters the playing space as part of an unspoken but understood social contract. We agree to turn off our cellphones and open up our crinkly candy wrappers before the lights go down. We try not to disturb our neighbours or the performers during the show. We respond with laughter, attention, consideration, gasps, and, on occasion, tears. We demonstrate our enthusiasm and gratitude in applause, at times on our feet. We talk to our companions about what we have seen and heard. We spread the word.
For me, as someone who has lived and breathed theatre for most of my life, there is a utopian impulse at play in this process. Something hopeful and generative is created, albeit temporarily, when groups of people come together to share in the witnessing of performance. Of course I am aware of the limits of this idea. Too often the people I see around me in these communal events are people who are very much like me: white, educated, and middle-aged or older. I would be happy to see a more diverse, intergenerational mix in audiences. I do worry about the future of the mainstream performing arts if the most established companies cannot attract a younger and more diverse audience to sustain their futures. We all need to feel that we are a valued part of the community, and the theatregoing community is no exception to that rule.
Finally, as I am a theatre educator by trade, I have to believe in theatre’s educational power. In this belief I sit with philosophers as far back as Aristotle and Horace who understood theatre’s power to both enlighten and instruct. Human behavior, revealed through stories of characters who are deeply tested by life, is analyzed and interpreted in dramatic action. Theatre is a laboratory for the study of humanity.
I have always found the many-layered complexity of the art form to be illuminating as well. In addition to the text of a play is the interpretive work of the actors and their director. Then the worlds of set and costume design enliven the play. The way light and sound are applied add more layers of meaning. (On the sound front, recently I was stopped in a rare moment of aesthetic arrest by the use of Joni Mitchell’s song “Blue” in a National Theatre Live screening of Ivo van Hove’s production of Hedda Gabler. The song revealed the psychology of Hedda, her self-proclaimed lack of “talent for living,” in a new and memorable way.)
On an even more idealistic level, I believe in theatre’s potential for making the world a better place. My work in the field of applied theatre, also known as community-based or grassroots theatre (among many other names), has taught me plenty. It has shown me how theatre-making can open up spaces within communities for the sharing of stories and the consideration of alternative possible futures. I have seen this happen in my work with William Head on Stage, Canada’s only inmate-run prison theatre company.
I think about how Ibsen’s plays shocked European society of the late 19th century. How Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls attacked Margaret Thatcher’s neoconservative regime in the 1980s. How Tony Kushner’s Angels in America woke up middle-class audiences to the realities of the AIDS crisis in the 1990s. These plays, and many more, bolster my faith in theatre as a tool for awareness and social change.
If these thoughts provoke some of your own, perhaps you can bring your live self to Daniel MacIvor’s “WTF” talk, then will yourself off the cozy couch in the days that follow so you can play your sacred role. Be part of the community bearing witness to the often edgy, social-change-themed Uno Fest performances, then compare your list of memories to another’s.
Intrepid Theatre’s 20th Annual UNO Fest runs May 17-27, 2017 in the Metro Studio, Intrepid Theatre Club and more. Daniel MacIvor’s keynote talk, “WTF: or What’s Theatre For?” Wednesday, May 17 at 8pm, Metro Studio, 1411 Quadra Street. Go to intrepidtheatre.com for more info, a listing of all performances and a link to purchase tickets and passes. Tickets can also be purchased over the phone at 1-855-842-7575, or in person at 101-804 Broughton Street.
Monica Pendergast is co-editor and chapter author of a forthcoming e-book, Web of Performance: An Ensemble Workbook for Youth, also being published by the University of Victoria.