Ritual Ceremony & Theater

If there is one theme uniting this week’s readings, it is the idea of theater as a form of ritual, returning it to its earlier mystical origins stretching from the Pleistocene to the Middle Ages. Both Chaikin and Staniewski treat theater very much as a communal ritual wherein the actors behave as a sort of priesthood for the communal audience. Chaikin’s was the first American theater solely dedicated to collaborative creation of new texts. Indeed, one of his underlying principles – empathy – is necessary for the very survival of society.

Staniewski left the cities with his actors to create rural theatrical communities, in which the locals often participated. He fostered such a level of trust amongst his actors that they would often perform “night runs,” huddled tightly against each other to catch any potential community members who fell.

Victor Turner’s work on ritual is practically a Holy Bible of Evolutionary Psychology. He reminds us that only as societies grow increasingly secular do drama and ritual split. Ritual and art have been around as long as we have, and a very strong case can be made that, like sex and the survival instinct, evolution deemed creativity “too important to be left to chance.” For social animals such as us, ritual (before spoken language) may have been the glue that held early bands of our ancestors together. His definition of theater as separating people, placing them “in limbo,” and then “returning them to mundane life” can be applied to theater as well, though normally without the spiritual implications. For the West, a straight line can be drawn from our appearance on this planet right up through the medieval morality plays, and it always served the purpose of “sustaining cherished social and cultural principles and forms.

What Hitler did was a complete marriage of ritual and theater. The same holds true for the Soviets, nightly staging their “Marxist argy-bargy.” Ritual theater is meant to unify the community as one: it “involves selves, not self; yet the aggregate of selves in a given community is often thought of, metaphorically, as a self.” This is a very important distinction. When my mom attends church, it is not “rigid,” “stereotypal,” or “obsessive.” She attends as a Christian unifying with a community of other Christians.

In 1968, The Living Theater began to try to create a “free theatre piece with chance-type rules.” Their overall goal was to create a “depiction of the state of being” they imagined as “desirable.” Like most artists of the time, they were very serious about making fundamental change to a society they saw as unfair. They saw Paradise Now! as not merely a theatrical piece but a “state of being/this will result in freedom/freedom is honesty/a new – a newly realized self can realize a new world.” It was meant to be a reaction against what they saw as a new fascism in Greece, Italy, Sweden, and Germany. The play would address the problems with society: “fascism – money – war.” The Living Theater would “make everyone artists, into their rightful state as creative beings.” This, too, was an attempt to reconnect with the idea of theater as ritual, as a simultaneous civic and religious event.

In the introduction to “The Serpent,” Van Italle writes that the playwright is not so much to “write a play” as “construct a ceremony.” Here we have another example of theater as ritual, as interaction between priest and flock. He even allows that the text may be altered as needed to fulfill the requirements of any future community it serves.

The essays from the director and playwright are both instructive in showing how they did the piece, how the piece works if done successfully, and how the playwright thinks it should not be done. Most interesting is Van Halle’s assertion that improvisation “works best in inverse proportion to the amount of time left in a rehearsal period before performance.” I quite agree. The last couple of weeks before opening night are when control must tighten and the work must focus. Improvisation is best left to the first few weeks of rehearsal. Because “The Serpent” in particular has some ephemeral elements, the director must have absolute clarity in deciding “why” one element is highlighted of glossed over. Otherwise, the play can devolve into nonsensical mutterings.

I like “The Serpent” because it hearkens to the idea of community ritual. More specifically, it reads like a communal ceremony to publicly grieve over two fallen giants, and compares it to the loss of innocence in the Garden of Eden. Brecht and Van Italle may have two competing ideas about human choice. For Brecht, no choice is inevitable. Bad choices in the past do not negate good choices in the future. Van Italle has written a play, according to the director’s vision, that seems to say that past events have “fixed” a course on human society and ended up restraining future choices, a much more pessimistic view.

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Published in: on May 16, 2009 at 12:51 am  Leave a Comment  

Jan Kott, Shakespeare, and “The Godfather”

The back cover of my copy of “Shakespeare, Our Contemporary” notes that Jan Kott is the only theater theorist who finds it completely natural to have the secret police knock on one’s door in the small hours. The book is written from the point of view of someone intimately familiar with the workings of a totalitarian state. His is a theater with a survival mechanism of justified paranoia – “just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you.” He was all-too familiar with the state wherein it was standard practice to “listen in on…conversations, ask questions, and read [private] letters.” Discourse must be coded when the citizens realize realize they are “being watched.” Of course Kott would read into Shakespeare the “drama of political crime.” Of course his experiences let him to write that the political machinations are mad because “politics is itself madness,” and to recognize in Fortinbras the survivor as “the youth, deeply involved in politics…more primitive [read: Machiavellian] than the previous Hamlets.” A Fortinbras who understands that “a coup is a difficult affair,” and best left to others.

What we must remember is that, for the majority of human history, peaceful transfers of power have been the exception rather than the rule. Kott and Brecht both had experiences with governmental “hostile takeovers.” Kott, like Brecht, was more interested in “the sequences of historical conflicts” in Shakespeare than in individual analysis. Bolingbroke and Richard are equals; both sought the throne and didn’t give a damn what barbaric necessity required. Reading about Shakespeare through Kott is like reading a dramatized version of Machiavelli’s “The Prince.” Politics is power, nothing more. The weak ruler is taken down as readily as the strong leader (in a moment of weakness).

Lear is a good example of the strong ruler ripped apart when he gave an opening. I would agree that “King Lear” not only destroys the concept of “kingly power” derived from divine right, but it, too “crushes the entire moral order.” The world of Lear, Cordelia, Goneril, and Regan is destroyed from within by a house “divided against itself.” In the Elizabethan “Great Chain of Being,” all creatures were placed into a hierarchy with God at the summit. Betraying that place could lead to all manner of natural and civil disasters. As I wrote for my article on “King Lear” at Kentucky Rep:

Neither could a person voluntarily give up their place in The Great Chain; they did not choose that place. The position a person occupies in the hierarchy is more important than that individual person. Lear’s decision to abdicate was not his to make. However, the decision, once made, caused him to fall from his kingly station. The Elizabethan view was that there was no such thing as a “bad king,” but that a person could “do kingship badly.” In the hierarchy Lear the Man had no right to usurp Lear the King, because Lear the King was put on the throne by God, and could only be removed by God. As such, the job of Lear the King is more important than any one man’s opinion, even if that man happens to be Lear the Man.

Kott wrote that “King Lear” is best viewed as a precursor to absurdist drama: that the world is pointless, and there is only suffering. He wrote that the “exposition of ‘King Lear’ shows a world that is to be destroyed,” and that the old view of nobility and morality, embodied by Lear and Gloucester, was hopelessly “naive.” Shakespeare’s world echoes Beckett’s: “hopeless from the start,” wherein “everyone has experienced the cruelty of the world.” You can rebel against it, stoically accept it, and it cares neither way. “[B]oth are crushed by it.” Kott writes that the plays of Brecht, Beckett, and others are rightly called Shakespearian in the sense that they resemble a “medieval morality play.” The morality plays of the Middle Ages took generalized characters and created parables with good or bad endings depending on the characters’ decisions. However, the decisions made in ‘…Lear’ and ‘Endgame ‘ lead to particularly bad ends. What I particularly liked about “Hamlet of the Mid-Century,” just because I had never been exposed to it, was the stress on Fortinbra’s role in Hamlet (another video game reference: In Onimusha, you fight a demon king named Fortinbras, who’s renowned for his sword expertise). Hamlet, in this light, is just setting the stage for the Great Man Theory embodied by Fortinbras. The play still fits with Kott’s hypothesis that Shakespeare’s plays are circular: in both the beginning and the end, there is a new king.

Fortinbras didn’t even have to do any of the dirty work. As in “Richard II,” someone else was kind enough to whack everybody what needed whacking. All he had to do was show up, lament Hamlet’s regrettable but necessary taking of action which led to Hamlet’s death against Fortinbras’ “eternal watching/with a cold apple in one’s hand on a narrow chair” (poor Fortinbras. Stuck with a cold apple, a little seat, and a clear path to the throne once the killing had abated). The only thing left is for Fortinbras to say, “with a charming smile,” “take away these corpses. Now I shall be your king.”

Both Beckett and Shakespeare make use of circular plays: Beckett’s German production of “Endgame” had remarkably similar opening and closing tableaux. Shakepeare’s history plays begin and end with a new king. Life begins and ends for individuals, but the species gropes anew for answers with each generation in a never-ending cycle. According to Beckett and Shakespeare, there may not be any answers. There may only be our desire for control. The Great Machine and our inherent need for power over others is as apparent in the relationship between Hamm and Clov as it is in all the machinations of Richard III.

Published in: on May 16, 2009 at 12:47 am  Leave a Comment  

Anne Bogart and Strict Constuctionist Dramaturgy

In And Then, You Act, Anne Bogart quotes Jerzy Grotowski’s notion that “it is not theatre that is indispensible.” What is indispensible is that each artist must attempt to “cross the frontiers between you and me; to come forward to meet you, so that we do not get lost in the crowd.” What does this mean and how does it apply to new play development?

It means that each artist can approach their peers with the expectation of open communication, trust, and confidence. Bogart wisely chastises daydreaming about our ideal theater ensemble. No. “You go to war with the army you have, not the army you want.” This military analogy extends further. Soldiers, asked why they fight, do not use abstract notions like “to defeat Islamofascism” or “protect America’s interests.” They fight for their buddies in the field. So it is with artists. We make art with our friends, for our friends. She writes that we should “learn to love, admire, respect, and appreciate” our colleagues: they “provide the necessary keys to [our] development and growth.” We must commit to making great theater with the people we work with now, because we are known by our reputation. “If you do not commit fully to the people with you now, like-minded others will never show up,” because we have been proven unworthy.

The discussion with Ken Rus Schmoll was intriguing because “Telephone” was a great and unique play. I enjoyed his description of the actresses’ character-finding process for the long (and brilliant) second act, and how she inhabited a woman so completely unlike herself. She did “cross the frontiers” in an exceptional fashion. This production was also a successful crossing by turning such a dense book and its ideas into a show. This required much back-and-forth between the author and Schmoll. The author had never written a theatrical script, and was very receptive to Schmoll’s suggestions on how to dramatize scenarios.

The two essays from the course packet which most intrigued me were “Saving the Story” and “Media Lab creates Center for Future Storytelling.” In the second, Frank Moss makes the important point that storytelling “is at the heart of what makes us uniquely human.” He mentions how technology has historically been employed in storytelling, and how it has “given people new ways” to “cross the frontiers” separating them and “tell their stories.” Gina Gionfriddo’s essay describes theatrical storytelling’s most distinct advantage: “that sense of mess and mystery that the very best poems achieve, works that circle the truth of our lives without nailing it down reductively.”

The theater may need to cross the frontier back from the non-narrative Postmodern theater to the simple yet profound act of telling a story, a good story which speaks to the universality of the human condition. I agree with Grotowski that theater which attempts to rival movies and television is doomed to failure. While not eschewing the avant-garde, I think the best new plays are those that just tell a story. Think of Martin McDonagh, David Harrower, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, and Tom Stoppard. There are many disparate elements in their work; the unifying element is that they are all great storytellers. They “cross the frontiers” to their audience effortlessly.

A similar phenomenon is at work in video games. Games now also perform one of the original roles of theater: to tell the stories of gods, generals, and heroes. The coolest weapon system does not save a game with a bad story. Gamers are smart, and they will not drop sixty dollars and invest thirty to sixty hours of their life for a bad story. The same holds true for theater. We cannot expect an audience to return if we overcharge them at the box office and bore them in the darkened room. It may be time for the Postmodern avant-garde to stop loudly complaining about audience stupidity, and admit that it has become a tad guilty of narcissism. As was once said: “if you’re on your fourth divorce, maybe she’s not the problem.”
“Scriptwork” offers two pages on the role of the production dramaturg, but they are two pages worth memorizing. The dramaturg must “advocate the play based on its own qualities rather than…a preconception of what the play…should be.” For every thing there is a season, and sometimes the seasonal hymn is “sit down and shut up/you’re not that brilliant.” Is that not an awful thing to say? No, not really. Human nature being what it is, inch-giving can oft lead to mile-taking. Gionfriddo’s essay shows how “revision is a slippery slope.” It is a very short trip from “punching up” a character trait, to the playwright feeling “ganged up on and not protected,” to the inevitable endgame: the playwright “outside the theater smoking and crying.” The dramaturg should have long-ago crossed the frontier to stand athwart this mess and yelled “Stop!”

Scriptwork and the Gionfriddo essay are important cautionary tales for the dramaturg working on a new play. Earlier, I asked what “cross the frontiers” means for new play development. I shall now venture an answer in regards to my role as dramaturg. First, some background.

I coined the term “Strict Constructionist Dramaturgy” for my work. This was inspired by reading Antonin Scalia’s “A Matter of Interpretation: Federal Courts & the Law.” Applying a legal philosophy to theatrical practice is iffy; strict constructionism is the narrowest form of an umbrella philosophy that includes textualism and “original intent.” What the phrase does is crystallize what I do not do: monkey around with others’ scripts. I learned early what playwrights thought of activist dramaturgs. As I once sarcastically wrote: “it is not the job of judges to legislate from the bench, except in extraordinary circumstances. Nor is it the job of the dramaturg to direct or play-wright from the cheap seats. Ever.” The other professional axiom I use is from Alexander Hamilton’s writing in The Federalist Papers, which describe the role of the federal judiciary: “they have neither force, nor will, but merely judgment.” I do not influence the story, I just try to help the playwright realize it.

For a strict constructionist dramaturg the text is central, as is shepherding the play to production and “protecting the playwright.” Realizing the original intent of the playwright is the ultimate goal. Will there be changes? Possibly, but that is for the playwright and director to decide. My job is to make it easier for the three of us, and the rest of the production team, to cross the already-difficult frontiers toward making great theater.
To close with another legal analogy: judges who have the authority to “grant” rights are dangerous, because they then possess the de facto authority to remove those rights at will. So it is with dramaturgs. If you “grant” a playwright control over their creation, it becomes too tempting to re-assert control and look for the “easy fix” if things start getting hard. The more difficult job is to tough it out, and “learn to love, admire, respect…appreciate” and trust your colleagues. They are crossing, as well.

Published in: on May 16, 2009 at 12:40 am  Leave a Comment