When we talk about the value of theatre (and we do here in the theatrosphere, a lot), the heart of these conversations usually lands somewhere around the word ‘experience’. As in: what experience does the theatre offer its patrons and practitioners that no other art form can provide? Ask this question of most theatre-makers and you’re likely throwing wide floodgates that can’t be soon shut. What follows then, out here on teh internets, is a cry for brevity from those in its corners that would dispense with florid analysis; just the bullet points please, thank you very much. Then there are they who will respond to the very question with indignation, and righteously pronounce that they do not, will not, defend their chosen art form any longer, nor waste any more precious cyber space on the discussion. The point that these people are missing, however, is that it’s not a discussion about defending theatre – theatre will do that just fine on its own – it’s about composing marketing copy.
Now, there has been the odd occasion where I have found myself mired in a production that makes even me question the value of theatre. I have sat through some…stuff that has made me want to quit theatre altogether. This is the risk inherent in a field with no sense of competition, I suppose. (Again, a compelling argument for the value of theatre criticism.) But then I’ll inevitably go to a different play that clearly and resoundingly reminds me of the incomparable symbiotic experience that stage can be. Because done well, and done confidently, there can be built an exquisite balance of trust between player and witness that knits them together as complicit participators in the work as a whole. This balance is possible because of a silently understood contract between us and them, which may be simply stated as this: if you believe that the conditions of your stage world are real, so will I. There’s power in that.
It’s the work I saw at Mag North Wednesday night that brought that back to me. Toronto’s Volcano Theatre traveled here with their award-winning Michael Redhill play Goodness, and what a perfectly convenient work to take on tour; despite the fact that it takes its five actors from Toronto to Poland to the UK, the entire set consisted merely of a couple of chairs. The lighting was simple yet entirely evocative throughout. And the wonderful soundtrack of harmonized world music? Mostly provided by the actors themselves. Awesome. They slid through multiple roles with no costume changes and relied on the most minimal of props, some merely indicated where possible. And the thing is, I believed every bit of it, so precise was the commitment to character and place. A sound contract fulfilled with open hearts by both parties.
I wonder sometimes when we’re budgeting and looking for expenditures to cut if we don’t put too much weight on set dec and over-thought design when we could be putting more trust in the playwright and the facility of the actors.
Not that I’m suggesting that we become a nation of mimes. (Ew.) If a character is required to bake cookies, they should probably have a stove on stage. But do we have to build the entire kitchen? If we work harder on fulfilling our terms of the contract we shouldn’t have to, and it’s a worthy ambition to be recognized as a country full of theatre artists who need only a script, a stage and an audience to be brilliant.
Anyone else see the value in that?