I have just had the weirdest experience, where two worlds appear to have collided, and changed places in the universe.
The two worlds are those of theatre practice and theory of theatre. They are mythical worlds, because only those individuals who try to maintain that they are, indeed, pure or separate or totally independent of each other actually believe that they exist. I was one of them once, as a practitioner, before I embarked upon my own academic research project and began to understand something of the value of theoretical scholarship. But it is fair to say that there are still many academic theorists who have little understanding of the nature of actual, on the shop floor, theatre practice, and many theatre practitioners cling to a deep skepticism of the work of academics.
This past week, Brisbane was home to the annual conference of the Australasian Drama, Theatre and Performance Studies Association (ADSA), the organization that supports those in tertiary education who teach and research and write in scholarly journals about such matters. This was my third ADSA conference in six years. I attended two sessions, and ran a workshop, and I was astonished at the vibrancy of the presentations, the depth of the insights into specific examples of current theatre practice, the rigour of the self reflections by practitioner/researchers of their own practice, and the entertaining style of the presentations. It was revelatory, not just in the sense that new ideas were offered, and old ones busted, but that a new wave of academics has burst upon the scene who know what they are talking about when it comes to theatre practice.
Imagine my surprise, therefore, when I went to the theatre tonight, and saw on stage a new play that is not so much a play, as an exposition of a theory of performance, a methodological exegesis of an idea of theatre. I apologise for the gratuitous big words, there is no excuse for using big words just to demonstrate that I have a university degree. In the above context, they mean absolutely nothing, so you are not missing anything. In the same way, presenting meta-theatre as theatre means absolutely nothing, so the play I saw tonight was largely, in effect if not in fact, nothing.
Now, you might be forgiven for thinking I am just a wee bit grumpy about this. And you’d be right. I happen to think theatre has a very important role to play in sustaining, if not enhancing a cohesive society. It does this by offering a community of individuals the opportunity to experience, together, ways of reflecting upon their own lives, of examining and challenging their assumptions and prejudices, of imagining fantastical extensions of their lives and experiences, by exposing them to unfamiliar ways of being human, and doing all this in enjoyable and stimulating ways. This requires skillful practitioners, capable of working collaboratively, imaginatively and usually with very limited resources.
I’m not grumpy with the people involved. The writer Anna McGahan (who is also the actor Anna McGahan) and director Melanie Wild have attempted something very ambitious, a play about an impending revolution with multiple characters and several underlying themes, all deserving of our attention. The actors Norman Doyle and Katy Curtain create those characters with skill and varying degrees of complexity. The design team provide exciting visual elements to stimulate the senses. The problem, for an audience member, is that there is no clarity of purpose, no sense of direction within the play itself, on its own terms, which could give me access to whatever was driving it – apart from the apparent aim of demonstrating how clever its makers could be. I really don’t think that is what they set out to do, but that is how it comes over. The title is no help at all. The writer’s “playwright’s note” in the program talks about “why people touch” and “what we gain, and what we lose, when we let somebody touch us”. But apart from the fact that the two actors never (or hardly ever, I can’t swear that they never) touch, this is not a play about touch, or lack of touch. There are no insights or revelations or even explorations about the nature of touch, or how people are affected by the lack of human contact. There is nothing in this production that actually touches the audience either, in a physical or metaphorical sense, apart from the courage of the performers in being there at all, and the clever visual elements.
I don’t know about you, but I don’t go to the theatre with the primary aim of being impressed by clever writing, or clever directing, or clever visuals or even clever acting. I go to experience life as I understand it to exist, through somebody else’s eyes and experience. I go to be moved, touched, inspired, appalled, shocked, entertained, amused, aroused, and lots of other words starting with a. I don’t go to be insulted, humiliated, degraded or derided or patronised. When even one of those things happens, I get grumpy.