In this open letter to a dead theatre practitioner, I rant about the challenges and opportunities for implementing epic theatre as a tool for social transformation in today’s 21st-century society. There are moments were I heard Brecht’s words answering my points, and I’ve put those direct quotes from Brecht on Theatre: The Development of an Aesthetic in red italics.
Do you mind if I call you Bertolt? Or Bert? You don’t seem like you would be a Bert, but perhaps Bertie? Maybe only for special occassions?
So, Bertolt. I dig your theories – we probably align on most of your mission, but I’m trying to put your 20th-century theory to work in a 21st-century world in which a good portion of humanity has alienated itself from reality. And man, that presents some real sticky wickets. I mean when Russian Trolls can stage an anti-Islam protest and also a pro-Islam protest across the street from each other in TEXAS via Facebook for the SAME DAY
it’s hard to compete – epic theatrically speaking.
Man, you would have gone nutso-crazy for the internet. Talk about technology to promote “audience revelation“! But it’s the wild west out there. How do people know who they can (or should?) trust? And what happens when Neighbor Franz says to Neighbor Klaus, “what you’re telling me can’t be true because Facebook told me [insert conspiracy of the moment]!” When folks prefer to trust click-bait over flesh and blood humans they know and to whom they have a personal connection, how can the theatre become a place of “revelation”?
Now, Bertie, I realized I’ve been using some big 21st-century words that you have absolutely no context or knowledge for. But I’m gonna need you to get hip to them real fast. So watch this film clip from The Matrix and we’ll pretend that it’s uploading information about the major historical and technological advances of the last 70 years.
So now that you’ve been rebooted to Bertolt 2.0
I know what you’re going to say:
Whenever a broad stratum of humanity is declining its vital utterances get weaker and weaker, its imagination bercomes crippled, its appetites dwindle, its entire history has nothing more of note to offer, not even to itself. What a declining stratum like this does can no longer lead to any conclusions about men’s doings. In the case of arts this means that such people can no longer create or absorb art of any sort.
And if that’s true, Bertie. We may be well and truly screwed – and not in the good way. But I’m not a nihlist. I know a lot of your 20th-century commrades were. I can’t help it, I’m an optimist-realist. I have to have hope that art can change the world and reason to understand that art needs a little support from social mechanisms that can actually get shit done.
So I ask you, Bertolt:
how can theatre transform to the radical transformation of the mentality of our time?
The symptoms of this transformation … have been seen as symptoms of disease. There is some justification for this, for of course what one sees first of all are the signs of decline in whatever is old. …But it would be wrong to see these phenomena…as anything but unhealthy changes stimulated by the operation of really new mental influences on our culture’s aged body. It is precisely theatre, art and literature which have to form the ‘ideological superstructure’ for a solid, practical rearrangement of our age’s way of life.
Hmmm…interesting notion. Is this social decay part and parcel of humanity sloughing off the latest layer of dead cells as it molts into the human race of the next century? Does technology inherently lock us into a battle of wills between the old guard and the next generation? Can humanity not intermix and learn and adapt by collaborating across generations? This last is part of my hope. Why throw the baby out with the bathwater when you can build a self-cleaning bathtub? Look at this high school Robotics team that built a wheelchair for a 2-year old with a rare genetic condition, for instance.
Cillian’s parents’ insurance wouldn’t cover the cost of the wheelchair, so local high school students made this their extracurricular project. If the State becomes ineffectual in meeting the needs of citizens and local community members can, does this hyper-local audience become a more effective group to impact through Epic theatre?
And yeah, Bertie – I acknowledge that in a perfect world, the high school robotics team is not the ideal means of production for this kind of effort. But we don’t live in that perfect world, Bertie, and I’m afraid we never will. It would be great if The State believed that workers deserved a decent quality of life, but right now half of the US population don’t even believe that Black lives matter or that health care is a human right. So excuse me if I don’t hold my breath waiting for the government to get any meaningful legislation passed – let alone implemented.
No, I’m afraid that if a change is gonna come, then it’s gonna come from below.
Neighbor to neighbor, family to family, church group to school to local business. Because small groups of people with shared local interests might be more motivated to find a better way to live together than big shot politicians trying to score points on the other team. So why not use theatre to mobilize them? Call me Pollyanna, but that’s just how I see it, Bertie.
So where does that leave me? Bertolt, since you’ve been dead theatre has “died” and been resuscitated (at least in the US) a few times now. At the moment we are almost a year into a pandemic that has shut down live theatre, with only the beginning twinkling of a return to in-person performances at the far end of the tunnel that is 2021 up ahead (and that’s the optimistic forecast). Simultaneously, the American commercial theatre has been undergoing scathing critiques of its “not racist” rather than antiracist practices and preachings. Theatre companies that do make it through this pandemic, how they come back, and what they program all remain to be seen. But if I were a betting woman, I would guess that we are looking at a market that will demand box office blockbusters and that means “family programming” or remounts of old chestnuts. You thought the Russians were bad in 1919?
Just wait till you sit through the colorblind cast version of Our Town at Hometown Regional Theatre USA this fall.
And sure, in the big cities you might get some dust-offs of “woke-lit,” but they’ll be from playwrights white audiences already know and trust, because (most likely) they’ll be the majority of audiences who can still afford a theatre ticket.
An Epic Theatre, that seeks to awaken its audience to reality will struggle to live in the commercial theatre, at least in this country. Artists here are just one of many “brands” of entertainers along with athletes, celebrities, and Joe Rogan.
Americans don’t want to be preached to by their entertainers
(except maybe white men who listen to Joe Rogan) – they have ministers, politicians, and Russian Trolls for that, Bertie. They demand amusement from their entertainers much like medieval kings summoned and dismissed the court jester. If it’s going to call itself “theatre” then it better be Aristotle’s brand of obvious drama or a raucous Roman-style comedy, because that’s what the people paid money expecting to see. And this is America, the customer is never wrong. Remember those folks we call the audience? They can always stay home and watch Netflix.
These market conditions do not support the production of Epic Theatre at a critical moment in which social movements are primed to receive it.
So, Bertie, perhaps it’s time we reimagine what the confines of the “theatre” ought to be. Baz Kershaw has commented on the impact of society’s increasingly performative evolution due to mass media, “the everyday [has turned] into an immersive spectacle…, in which people become spectators of themselves as participants in an emergent cultural (dis)order”. Theatre is all around us, Bertie, to the extent that we are all players on someone’s stage – the great question is whose? And the answer might overlap many realities.
Perhaps what we need is an Epic Theatre of Kindness – and yes, I’ll write to Mr. Artaud on this point as well. It’s still a burgeoning idea of mine, Bertie, but we’re friends now, and I’d like your take on this. If society is performative and people already behave as empowered actors in whatever scripted narrative they subscribe to, maybe the goal is not to awaken them to inspire change, but rather to support them in building their own reality that butts up against someone else’s from their own community. That way when they are moved to create change they could do so collaboratively and collectively. Metaphorically playing Jenga in ways that continually keep the community tower from falling, except instead of just recycling the old blocks of systemic inequity and calling them “new and improved” maybe we can invite folks to build together new blocks to fit into some of the existing old structure. And maybe over time we go from the bland pine-colored Jenga set to something vibrant and more representative of the whole community? Or maybe we end up with an Escher painting?
Or perhaps we are already living in the Escher painting, Bertie.
It’s a good visualization of how our current reality is structured, not on a sound foundation of fact, but on a hodgepodge of interrelated
If we are to begin building an Epic Theatre of Kindness perhaps a good starting point is to rethink the “theatre” part of it. Maybe it needs to grow out of community centers? Maybe it starts as a Facebook group? Wherever it starts, this Epic Theatre of Kindness has to meet the people where they are and build the theatre around that. Maybe this theatre collaborates directly with its audience to creatively placemake its theatre center? What if the theatre was less interested in pushing its agenda set by the artist (or the board or the box office) on high and a lot more interested in building relationships with the community. What if that theatre built trust and supported local businesses and community groups, homeless shelters and houses of worship? Maybe if it did that, then this Epic Theatre of Kindness could find a 20th-century way to make contact with the public in this 21st-century world. It’s just a theory.