Thursday, July 29, 2004

Tribal Roots

“[M]any of the shows being marketed as theatre nowadays are a hybrid of business-venture and public masturbation. Theatre as fleeting and momentary tribal experience, where reality is heightened or suspended, doesn't happen nearly as often as it should.”

Yeah, I know, I know. I’ve cited Nietzsche, David Foster Wallace and Alan Moore, and now I’m quoting my drinking buddies. What can I say? I’m a well-rounded little bitch.

I really like that description of theatre; calling it a tribal experience. Because it really is, and for some reason we often try to deny it. It reminded me why I chose playwriting (as opposed to the more lucrative career of CEO of Girls Gone Wild, Inc.). People often compare theatre to film and television, but it’s at a much wider remove than I suspect people think. Theatre, at its best, more resembles a late night commune with the local tribe’s shaman than it does with “Chinatown” or “Buffy the Vampire Slayer.”

Hell, theatre more resembles a live football game or church than it does with film or television.

I imagine that, on some level, there are people who are going to theatre to seek that stripped down, no-frills and purely communal experience that cannot be derived from the flashiness and glowiness of film and television. It’s hard to describe what I’m looking for with a play because what I’m looking for is literally indescribable (I’m not looking for a genre, tone or style when I go see a play the way I look for those things when I’m channel surfing).

What’s happening primarily with Broadway theatre (and, by association, Off- and Off-off Broadway theatre, since many theatre-makers—consciously or not—try to emulate the trends of the professionals) is that the mentality of film and television is being adopted with productions, therefore augmenting film & television’s attempt at hegemony over our imaginations. The problem with this mentality is that it helps film & television, but hurts theatre.

In other words, with a Broadway play, you’re getting a TV show without all the fun. It’s like taking heroin but without the high. In my view, theatre as an EVENT (in the same way that a TV miniseries is an EVENT) or as a live film leeches out the intrinsic value of the medium: it’s the worst of both worlds because you’re not able to enjoy the fleeting, temporal and personal experience that theatre can provide, and you’re not able to enjoy the glowing, larger-than-life spectacular experience that a film can provide.

Huge crowds at Broadway shows do not create a communal experience. Those huge arena spaces rarely lend to that symbiotic sharing of energy between the audience and the actors (yes, there are exceptions).

Theatre has an uncanny ability to both take you out of your own head and force you to burrow deeper into your own head. There is magic, true, honest-to-gorsh magic going on with theatre; I never believe for a split second (in real time) that I’m watching a married couple in their living room fret over their son’s drinking problem, but at the same time, I absolutely believe it. It is one of the best mediums that can both get you “in the moment” and detach yourself from the outside world.

You don’t need elaborate sets, lights and costumes to take audiences with you, to get under people’s skin, to enlighten, chasten or elate them. I watch a play with only two actors (one of whom I know personally), sitting on two wooden blocks, in a theatre I’ve been to many times, and their fictitious conversation can make me break out in a sweat because I know who these people are (me and my ex-girlfriend), where they are (in my shitty apartment) and what they’re looking for (me: for her to stay, her: the door). It’s hypnotic and trance-like, and if done properly can take you to an altered-state that film and television cannot.

I don’t mean to sound all mystical and new-agey. I’m really talking about those theatrical experiences that can’t be described in a blurb or sound-byte (and fortunately, there are still some theatre-makers out there who realize that theatre can survive without a mass-market catch-phrase) that both eliminate your profound sense of isolation (i.e., “Wow, someone has that anxiety, too? I thought it was just me.”) and force you to look at the world through a different point of view. I’m talking about those plays that change your worldview (if only for a day) that are completely indescribable to a person who hasn’t seen it.

I’d imagine having peyote around the campfire with the chief would be a similar experience.

I love seeing (at our shows) different audience members reacting differently to scenes (both over the course of the run and during each night). Sure, I like the instant gratification of everyone laughing heartily at a joke, or gasping in unison at something horrifying, but I LOVE hearing scattered laughter from a line not intended as a joke, or seeing the fluctuation of unanimous response night-after-night, or seeing scenes garner laughter on Thursday but gasps on Friday. It is a tribal experience, of us all coming together to try out this new thing, and we don’t really know where we’re going (but we know we’re getting there together).

Surprisingly enough, although I’m a playwright and co-artistic director of a theatre company, I’m often trying to find ways to bring budgets down (I guess, after talking to many managing directors of Off-off theatre companies and hearing their frustration towards having to always rope in the creative people and explain to them real-world financial limitations, this is rare). Perhaps this is both naïve and arrogant (but, let’s face it, both words could be used to describe me), but I’ve always believed that, if the script works, the actors “get it” and Pete shapes it correctly, we don’t need too much money for sets, costumes and props. I’m always curious to see if we can get enough audiences to get in that weird Apollonian and Dionysian place based solely on the fictitious conversation I’ve written, the actors and the direction.

Pete then snaps me out of that altered-state and tells me things like, “Dude, we have to PAY for the space!”

Then I’m back in the real world.

Worshipping snakes,

James “Chief Badonka-Donk” Comtois

July 29, 2004


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