The Urban Sherpa - a blog by Christopher DeWan

(can't tell the baby from the bathwater...)

Read Work and Other Essays, a collection of nonfiction by Christopher DeWan.

Technology and the Theatre (pt. 2) rating=1

File under: Art Explained

Small provincialism and large provincialism in the theatre

Through its history, the American regional theatre has been affected by a small provincialism and a large provincialism.

Cockroach Nation, by Matt PelfreyA brilliant show in Los Angeles (or Minnesota, or Austin, or anywhere) will receive rave reviews, extend its run, sweep the local awards ceremonies, and never receive a whit of attention in any other city. Actors, directors, designers and playwrights will have established remarkable careers known to very few outside that city's limits.

[To name names—playwrights Dennis Miles and Matt Pelfrey, actor Chris Wells, director Tracy Young—are as good and interesting artists as work in the American theatre, yet are known to very very few outside of Los Angeles. And each city has artists like them.]

Because theatre, by nature, is an ephemeral art, up and running for a few weeks, seen by exclusive audiences counted in the hundreds or low thousands, the regionalism of its celebrity is inevitable: it can touch only those who were within its relatively short reach.

This is small provincialism.

Meanwhile, the "major" regional theatres (which, depending on how you count, number somewhere between twenty and two hundred?) pass between them a small handful of artists—many of them quite good, though not necessarily categorically better than the first set.

A single playwright will be offered half a dozen productions across the country, and half a dozen more the following year, and each year after—partly because that playwright is good, and partly because that playwright is known. An equally small set of directors will jet from city to city to stage these shows, bringing with them their regular teams of designers, and cast the plays from an only slightly larger pool of actors. Further, these productions were chosen by artistic staff who migrate from one institution to another, a sort of inbreeding that results in an over-homogenized American theatre.

This is not necessarily bad. It is an economy of scale, an efficiency—an unavoidable side effect of limited resources, limited time, great distance, and the lure of "legitimacy."

But the result is that American theatre is prone to the same celebrity economy as American film: a "star" playwright and a "hot" director team up and assure a theatre’s board of a "success" (before the show even opens)—and the critics (who suffer from the same limited resources and limited time, and read all the same magazines as the artists) usually play along.

This is large provincialism.

One promise of the Internet is its ability to connect people—especially factions and sub-factions of people—across great distances. Its "Long Tail" reaches deep into previously unrepresented subcultures, and gives them voice. So it stands that the age of provincialism is drawing to a kind of end—and this may be true for theatre as much as anywhere else in our new society (though what this means remains to be seen...).

The Avatar and the Audience

There's a scene at the end of the first act of Mac Wellman's Albanian Soft Shoe: just as we've gotten used to the strange bickering of this little family and their almost-sitcom little world, an enormous shoe (presumably soft, presumably Albanian) comes crashing through the upstage wall, shattering the set and all verisimilitude.

It turns out that we've been watching a puppet play, and the (soft) shoe belongs to one of the puppeteers. The world that we'd come to accept as "real" was nothing of the sort—it was a Punch and Judy show—and when the curtain goes up on Act Two, we have to orient ourselves all over again.

It's a wonderfully (but not impossibly) jarring and theatrical moment --familiar in part because, as an audience, as a society, we've become used to making that adjustment: to re-orienting ourselves in the world. We've become used to answering the question, What is real? What is the reality here, for now?

We are in the Age of the Avatar and its layers of reality. We go about our days managing ourselves in the "real" world—grocery shopping, returning phone calls, loving. But now we also spend time managing ourselves in a separate, concurrent, digital world—checking our email, posting to our blog, maintaining our pages at Facebook and MySpace. We maintain our First Life in parallel with our Second Life (and Third, and Fourth...).

These digital manifestations of our selves are not not real: one difference of the Digital Age is that our avatars have taken on some actuality: the bits of data have accrued real mass.

Yet the theatre—which has played host to the "avatar" for centuries—is no place for an audience to realize their separate actual selves. Only to watch others—actors—do it.

The most significant change that has been affected upon theatre by the advent of the avatar: the roles depicted on stage are themselves shape-shifters: actors play characters who themselves have avatars.

[in progress]