So, American Theatre magazine has polled various practitioners to envision what will/might/should happen to the art form of theatre over the next twenty-five years. Fun! The resulting essays range from the practical to the imaginative to the vaguely dippy. Still! I liked artistic director Diane Paulus’ piece. Her ideas:
A.R.T. will be the first theatre in the country that has a club venue as its second stage. Club Zero Arrow will be a unique environment that will foster the development of work that encourages a whole new relationship with the audience. Club Zero Arrow will be the venue where cell phones can be turned on. People will be told from the get-go that they are allowed to participate as they would at a rock concert or a sports event—capturing images, making videos and recordings, using Twitter, sending text messages while they are experiencing the event, and then sharing their responses with friends on networking websites such as Facebook and MySpace. Club Zero Arrow will promote an open-source culture in which creative content (such as video footage, audio clips, photographs and other forms of creative commentary) can be generated and shared, making the events more accessible and widely distributed. I believe that if theatre is to remain a vital art form, it must give audiences a voice, a sense of ownership and a feeling of importance in the theatrical event.
I am intrigued by this proposal, so I’d like to play devil’s advocate. It is indeed all about the “relationship with the audience.” Yes, I too would love to see a loosening of the restrictions on content as related to theater pieces, some songs and moments should have to the opportunity to “go viral” without being pre-selected by a stodgy marketing department. But! The problem with our society in general, our natures that the theater is meant to hold a mirror up to, is that no one can enjoy a goddam moment for what it is intended to be. At every music venue or political speech or insert your own fervent public gathering place here, those in attendance are so eager to record the moment, on their digital camera or cell phone or what not, they aren’t actually, as the acting term goes, “in the moment.” Do you want audience members Twittering away at a show like our illustrious members of congress do during presidential speeches? Really do you? Put the camera down and maybe listen, and feel, and have a reaction, and if you need to record it, do so in the mind’s eye. There is a detachment inherent in inviting that kind of participation into a performance space. And maybe I’m “old.” And maybe “the kids” are able to multi-task, and record a moment while experiencing it. But the thing about theater is that it has never been reliant on technology, even when it acquiesced to fads (though gas lighting was a boon). Theater at it’s barest requires actors, a story, and an audience. It is communal, it requires as much if not more of the audience as it does the performers. It is both secular and religious in its origins. It is inherently ephemeral. So, yes, let’s loosen the restrictions, the proprietary constraints, over the product. But just because the thing is Twittered or YouTube’d, does not imbue the thing with value. Or meaning. Or relevance. And a picture or video may evoke something after the fact, but you really should have been there.