When the theatre community begins asking of itself, “what is our purpose? Whom do we serve?” ! Our ears prick up. Why are these questions being asked? What good can come from this introspection? It would appear that there is a storm brewing. To look upon the vast field of theatres and try to understand each in purpose and figure out their individual merits is a task beyond the capacity of most, if not all. But to value their efforts and gain perspective on their contributions should be within the grasp of everyone. There may lay the answer. If theatre should be accessible to everyone, why do we as an audience need to pay attention, and how do theatre companies address that issue.
First, we need to pay attention, because theatre is a mirror. In drama we see our crisis, in comedy we see our weakness, in all we see the reflection of each stage of mankind and how we relate to the rest of the world. If that’s not enough, theatre serves as a flashlight into our souls. On stage, the dark recesses of human nature wriggle out of social constraint and tickle our imaginations, prodding us to reflect upon our own black corners.
These machinations are not just extraneous leavings of a culture on the march. Each serves an important function for the community. As society becomes more and more complex, the lines of acceptable behavior are more difficult to discern. The balance of rights and responsibilities can go askew and what once had a sense of order can fall to chaos. Theatre when formed from within the culture examines the moments of conflict, the moments of angst, the signs of chaos, and holds these moments up for our examination. Because of the intimacy, the immediate proximity of audience to action, we are drawn in and become a part of the process. Therein we see the mirror, or in other words we see ourselves.
In seeing ourselves we are then taken to the next level. If we agree with the direction that the greater culture we live in is moving, then we are able to identify our part in the process and confirm our values. If on the other hand we question the direction our society is moving, we are forced to ask the question, what is our part? Every generation looks out in its waning years bemoaning the decline of social and moral values. Yet, in this lamentation how often do we ask what is or what was our part in the process? If truth be told, the changes only occur because we, the collective We, of society allow the changes to take place.
Communities are formed out of common interest. Be it economic, religious, or cultural values. Each community, in forming, immediately breaks into smaller groups to reaffirm identity and values. There are social clubs and ethnic heritage groups, there’s “mothers for brass buttons,” the fractioning is endless. And as the depth and complexity of society grows, we have less and less opportunity to leave our mark, affect a change or reinforce a value. We become a part of the great tidal wave of the society.
How do we slow it all down long enough to even see if we agree or like what is happening? Theatre. In the collaborative art of theatre, samplings from factions within a society gather to hold up the mirror and knock upon the door of our conscience. Orchestrated moments of cultural conflict, scripts, are displayed for our examination. The participants, the actors, reflect the questionable individual values. How they mix and how we the audience reacts creates the moments when the barriers of me-isms are temporarily taken down.
If theatre companies understand that this is the process they create, then they probably have a pretty strong sense of purpose. They then serve to illustrate that for any culture to thrive and grow, the society must embrace its members. The individuals that make up a community need to understand that their individuality is vital, but without the support of the society the individual is at the mercy of the predator.
That is the fundamental reason that we began to form societies, self-preservation. Individuals proving to be an asset to the group were encouraged, those with only self-interest were shunned. Theatres can take a lesson from that.
So if a storm is brewing, Fear not, because storms lead to clear vistas and new opportunities. Bask in that clarity of view and demand that theatre speak to you as if the world depended on it.