Theater is opaque. We take it in with our senses and analyze it with our brains but the clarity we achieve is when theater successfully appeals to our emotions.
As actors, or performers, or playwrites, how do we ensure that such an emotional connection is achieved -that this appeal is successfully made? Elinor Fuchs attempts to offer a rubric for such successes in her short essay Visits to a Small Planet, by posing a set of questions that a work must at the very least explore sufficiently. She calls these questions “a template for the critical imagination”.
Creating theater is the creation of “another world passing by in time and space”, and it is best to approach it as you would a world completely alien. What are the conditions, the climate, the currency, the commerce? Answering these questions, making them coherent, ultimately builds the character and strengthens their credibility, until the world they are emulating becomes a given. Moreover, it becomes a true emotional reflection the audience can observe. It is only then that actor and audience both can “be someone aroused to meaning”.
Response: The Empty Space
It could be argued that there has never been more opportunity for good theater. With the spread of cheap social currency and platforms from which to exchange it, it takes very little technical (and I mean that word only in terms of literal documentation) or monetary force in order to produce and distribute a piece of art.
Yet the theater suffers. Now, more than ever, bad theater is produced, prices are rising, and the public is complicit. At least, thats what Peter Brook argues in his book The Empty Space.
Part of this is due to technical constraints: rising production costs and shorter incubation periods, coupled with a tendency for audiences to be disappointed by entertainment that is increasingly elite in both pricetag and accessibility makes for stuff that is not only unmagical but deadly. But it is also due to the way the form has morphed, shifted and come to be accepted.
The directors, costume designers, set runners et al. all have something to do with this. Wildly experimental as well as completely indoctrinated interpretations of the same piece can bring a production to its knees, and the untrained worker is just as bad as the trained one if their approach is unenlightened. Context in any space is important, and Brook knows that theater without context is also deadly.
Incompetence is the vice, the condition and the tragedy of the world’s theater on any level.
Similarly, actors that have spent time, but not quality time, rehearsing a piece will deliver a deadly performance. Uninspired, inhibited, and baseless, the audience can feel their lack of conviction or truth. And, as Brooks emphasizes,
As an audience, we bear as much the brunt of the responsibility as those in and of the production. We go to the theater and claim that it is enjoyable when it is not, under the guise of it being, as Brook posits, an intellectual experience. And it’s true, as he says, that “it would be a sad day if the people went to theater out of duty.”
So how does theater regain its luster?
The critic plays a central role, in that he keeps everyone honest. His burden is heavy and he is reluctant to bear it, but he feels the responsibility bear down upon him and moves forward for the love of the craft.
[Theater] is, or would be, if truly practised, perhaps the hardest medium of all: it is merciless.
The artist, too, knows his burden. Theater is “appalling[ly] difficult.” It is an unforgiving medium where every mistake is observed and magnified. To say Brook’s outlook is grim would certainly be an understatement, but in the final chapter of his book “The Immediate Theater”, he does observe some modern successes and , while not offering a wholistic solution, still offers some insight on how to best fill ‘The Empty Space’.
It starts with an understanding (as stated earlier) of context, and also in breaking down the relationship between actor, subject and audience. Grasping the speed with which a production evolves, and knowing when to modify and evolve in certain arenas (don’t block a play without people, for instance, or don’t design costumes until you know how characters will move) also helps.
What is necessary is…clarity without rigidity.
Actors, for their part, will emerge into their type by revealing their limitations. Rehearsals are as much about shedding inhibitions as they are perfecting dynamic. Directing is as much about understanding as elasticity. The production is as much about compartmentalization as marriage.
“When the status quo is rotten -and few critics anywhere would dispute this- the only possibility is to judge events in relation to a possible goal.” -Brook
There’s a bit of irony here. The imagined standard by which the critic must judge is also the imagined standard by which an actor (or director, et al) must hold himself to as well. It’s abstract and yet, we know it when we see it.