In a way, theatre may be one of the oldest institutions of Western Culture. Though occasionally interrupted by politics and moral trepidation, the art form has been on a continuum since the ancient Greeks. This is undoubtedly due to the fact that theatre embraces one of the key values that denote mankind from other species, a desire and ability to carry knowledge across generations. Theatre is really a form of story telling.
Today, live theatre is faced with a set of challenges that are unique to our time. Much of the change stems from the fact that there is a fundamental shift in the nature of human interaction and diversion. The internet has brought more than access to knowledge; it has brought us all together in ways that, even ten years ago were unimaginable. Our ability to be socially interactive with some portion or even our entire circle of influence has led to a shift in focus.
What used to be grand issues faced by humanity have been distilled down to very focused causes. Where we once saw stories of famine or war and reacted with general compassion, we are now capable of following a single person experiencing the challenge of the event, and our response is more to the plight of that person than it is to the causation.
The result is that, via youtube, via blogging, via social networking, we are witnessing the dramas of real life on a daily basis, not just our own, but virtually any and all that we have some interest in following. If one of the prime functions of theatre is to bring different world views to our attention, if theatre is intended to tell stories we may not imagine, then that functionality is now very much in question. The unimaginable is available to us 24 hours a day, in volumes we can’t possibly absorb.
Theatre has also been a form of entertainment. From clowns to daredevils, from singers to mimes, all sorts of performance arts have been employed by theatre to keep us amused. Today, we can find these same acts, in innumerable variations, in places far more accessible than a playhouse. With hundreds of channels available on television, with literally an infinite number of websites, diversion is as easy to find as pulling the smart phone out of our pockets. Undoubtedly it will be even easier tomorrow.
So what is Theatre for now? What keeps it special and relevant today? Theatre holds the same function and has the same relevance now that it had when it was first institutionalized by the Greeks nearly 3 millennia ago. Theatre is, as it has always been, a remedy for the isolation of the individual.
Today’s 24-hour total information access gives us the impression of community, of common interest and conversation, but, in a very profound way isolates us from our community, our friends, our family. Have you been in a circumstance where multiple individuals supposedly together have their faces glued to the glow of their smart phones, to the exclusion of the people next to them? Sometimes, they’re even using the device to speak to each other. There’s an insinuation of intimacy because we can all reach each other in the virtual sense at any time. But really we’re interacting with a communication device, not a person, and an electronically mediated interaction can never have the power of a real-life, real-time, in-person experience.
While we engage in the electronic intimacy of texting, emailing, social media and sharing web content, we are engaging in a false sense of self-affirmation. We can and do proclaim our visions, our opinions, and our tastes without the filter of immediate intimate response. If our opinion in a face-to-face conversation meets with contention, we see, hear and feel the objection; it’s hard to ignore. Via modern technology it’s a matter of hitting delete, or as simple as not answering, and we certainly don’t have the impact of the live contact.
Theatre offers us the opportunity to re-connect ourselves. We sit with other people in a real space and leave ourselves open to strange experiences—a new conversation if you will—understanding that the response around us of this community, the audience, will impact how we feel, how we respond, how we react. This shared intimacy of communication holds tremendous power. We are reminded that we live in a community; the tribal response from those around us connects us and keeps the ego of individual opinion from dominating our experience. We are left with a spiritually intimate opportunity to reflect and judge as individuals within a community, not as an individual affecting or sitting outside of a community.
This communal experience of feeling the angst and the joy of being part of any community is a key component in the development of social civility and empathy. Theatre unlike any other art form places an audience on an extended journey through unknown experience, accompanied by others who, in the end, judge their response not just by their own intuition, but through the collective experience.
Today, theatre companies are trying to draw a tighter bead on what they present. Their challenge is to sustain the tradition of the experience while answering the audiences’ decreasing attention spans. Our responsibility is to embrace their efforts, share our experience with others, and encourage those we know to do the same.
Socially, we are responsible for the world we live in. We are responsible not just for our view of the world, but for the nurturing of those around us. Theatre serves as a conduit for that effort. Be a part of it, experience it, share it.