A Manifesto For A Contemporary Theatre Artist
Hey y’all! It’s been a real minute since I last posted anything on this here bloggity blog. I’ve been super busy learnin’ how to make art-anyone who says Fine Arts majors don’t do real work can eat their passive anti-artistic prejudice influenced hearts out while I get to do what I love for twenty four hours a week (that’s rehearsal hours, let alone class). College is great, learning is cool, go Boston University blah blah blah yassssss! Cool.
That all aside, I’ve been seeing a lot of theatre lately, as this lil Acting Major is wont to do-but surprisingly little of it has moved me.
Recently (probably in a post-election sense) I’ve noticed a shift in my aesthetic, a change in what I think effective theatre is and what I think effective theatre does.
This observation, coupled with my investigations of post modern avant garde art in Ilana Brownstein’s Dramatic Literature course sequence here at BU has ignited within me an intense desire to create a container for all of these thoughts and ideas as they're being newly formed and newly articulated.
So, in the interest of artistic transparency and in a radical act of taking up space with the intersections I own, I present to you:
The Active Theatre Manifesto
Theatre should not ask that I simply sit, be quiet, and watch. I am not interested in being a passive observer. I would like to be an active participant. I would like to witness something that cannot exist without me. I would like to be just as integral to the play’s function as the players, to be just as needed as they are to the performance of the thing.
All art must answer the question: to what end? All art must answer the question: at what cost? All theatre must answer the question: Why is it theatre? All theatre must answer the question: Why has the audience made the convenant, the decision to bring their life into direct contact with other lives doing things in front of them?
Narrative alone in theatre is no longer enough to make me assemble and watch-not when we all know it’s not real. Not when we all know it’s just a story.
You know and I know that this is a performance, so why are we making things with the intent of pretending that we don’t know that? Pretending is the job of the actor. The job of the audience isn’t so simply nailed down. What is the goal of pretending that what we’re watching is real? What you see in a play is true for that world, yes-but not real. Operating under the belief that it is real creates theatre that is ineffective, theatre that asks it’s audience to do something impossible-unceremoniously alienating them.
Active theatre must use an awareness of narrative to bring the audience in. Active theatre must at least be metatheatrical. Sharing with the audience the “secret” that this is all just play is an inherently inclusive act. It automatically invites them in, making them more than mere spectators.
We are post social media. I am now an individual who exists as part of a network. My life exists alongside countless others that I can access with relative ease-and as a result I have an expanded level of consciousness.
How do we bring that expanded level of consciousness into the work-what happens when theatre actively acknowledges that we are people watching other people create another world where they pretend to be someone else but are simultaneously that other person and themself? What happens when theatre is transmetatheatrical?
Theatre is active. Actors act, engage in action. It is only logical that theatre actively engage it’s audience. Theatre that does not do this fails the form. Theatre that only focuses on narrative fails the form.
To say theatre is just about telling stories is an oversimplification.
Theatre was never just about narrative. Greek theatre had transmetatheatrical qualities-an actor played a character while being aware of the fact that they’re in a narrative, while being aware of the fact that their body is a container for themself and their character simultaneously. The awareness of narrative comes from the fact that the Greeks acted out a narrative that was already known-the audience was already in. The focus wasn’t just on narrative, in fact, it couldn’t be, because the need of the piece wasn’t the need to convey narrative. It was something else. Something about exploring the intersection of known narrative and expanded awareness of those multiple layers of consciousness-something that created theatre which succeeded in actively engaging it’s audience as part of a ritual, something that provided spiritual nourishment.
Awareness of multiple layers of consciousness creates multiple layers of narrative. There is the story being told, the plot crafted by the playwright and enacted by the actor-but there is also the story being created as the audience engages with the other world they’re being shown. Theatre does not tell that story, unless it does-but it must never ignore that story.
Theatre that focuses only on the singular narrative of the play does, in fact, actively ignore the narrative that exists between the play and it’s audience. This is the kind of alienating theatre that asks me to simply sit, be quiet, and watch. This theatre is passive. This theatre isn’t how we started. This theatre doesn’t need to assemble live bodies to watch other live bodies do things, because this theatre could easily be enjoyed in the privacy of my own home-on a laptop or TV screen, in the pages of a book.
This theatre does not have to be theatre. And theatre that does not have to be theatre should not be theatre. To make it be that which it should not be is to ask it to embrace a critical existence failure.
By all means, bring me a new story, a new narrative. But invite me in. Need me. Actively engage me, make me wanna participate, move me to act as well. Make theatre that is active and engages me through more than just narrative, or make something else and don’t call it theatre.
Theatre is not about creating a world that exists entirely separately and independently from my own and making me passively observe it. Theatre like that no longer interests me. Theatre like that doesn’t depend on me. Theatre like that doesn’t need me.
But theatre needs an audience. So make your theatre need it’s audience. Make active theatre, theatre that needs to be seen, experienced, and felt. Make theatre that reminds its audience that is alive.
No one comes to the theatre anymore. That’s partially because it’s inaccessible, which is a larger problem. But another part of this issue is that too much theatre just tells a story, just focuses on conveying a narrative-which is something almost every other form of art has found a way to do without forcing me to assemble in another place-I can get it all from the comfort of my home. If you want me to come out and see your work, you need to use the form to create a space for me, a reason for me to attend.
As such, I encourage a shift away from theatre that only focuses on narrative-I don’t need theatre for that anymore, it’s actually the least accessible vehicle for that right now. Theatre that cares only about narrative, that kind of theatre will not just fail the form, it will destroy it.
So that’s that! This manifesto lays out a set of rules and ideals that I will strive to follow and operate under as I continue to make art (until I encounter something that makes me change/alter my aesthetic again). It’s as much directed to myself as a theatre maker as it is to others.
(EDIT: because my artistic aesthetic is ever changing, this shall be updated as new ideas come to me!)
That said, I’d love to hear what other people think about this thing coz A) I still don’t fully know everything about my taste-this is just a snapshot of where I am now and B) no manifesto is all-encompassing and most (if not all) are exclusionary in some regard, so I’m interested in different responses to this!
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Credit to Jeremy Ohringer for the term “transmetatheatricality” and all its iterations