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Thought Attacks! Speaking About the Value of Theater

March 19, 2008 By: Nick Keenan Category: Community Building

In what I’m pretty sure is going to become a regular series of conversations, several theater bloggers have teamed up today to bring you their thoughts on the value of theater today. Coordinated conversation has a way of exploding thought. And here’s my $0.075:

For me, this collaborative conversation is a value in itself that is often generated in theater – it’s an open environment to develop compelling thought. It doesn’t require a camera, microphone, or a web server, but it does require the reality check of audience interaction. It’s the simplest public interaction, and putting on a play is the only bully pulpit I know of that is ultimately accessible to all.

I often describe the “job” that we do in theater to my students and colleagues in this way: “We’re in the business of changing people’s lives.” Sometimes that means alarming your audience, and often it simply means allowing them to find deep resonance in a single moment of a play – we don’t fully understand or can’t fully predict the specific effect that a piece will have, but the effect happens because there is power and energy in being in the same room.

The theater is a place of exploration. It’s a place where resonance can be discovered in unexpected places. It’s a place of active entertainment in a world of passive entertainment. It requires – and rewards – a certain level of imaginative involvement.

Don Hall and Slay today both reflect on our common goal of boiling down the core values of theater today, and the purpose for this conversation does have potentially far-reaching implications. People who value theater value a particular kind of open-eyed view (sometimes secular, sometimes liberal, but always open-eyed) of their society. Those kinds of people – people who desire a certain amount of change of the status quo – have a problem when bringing that idea and convincing people who are comfortable in the status quo that change is needed. Like the demon in The Exorcist we need to be able to learn, as a community of sometimes-like-minded individuals, to name the thing we want to truly conquer our problem. Open-eyed people reject the dogma of talking points, but they also understand their power.

As much as we may hate them for their “violence of articulation”, we need strong, clear talking points to stand up against other media and understand what we can do. And since you’re on the team, we need to understand our negatives, and how we can turn those negatives into more focused energy on our positives: Theater isn’t not as polished as film, it’s not as solitarily immersive as literature, it’s not as energizing as music, it’s not as connected as youtube or blogs, it’s not as convenient as television, it’s not as serious as religion, it’s not as powerful as politics, and all that has resulted in a single reality: we have less perceived importance to society than any of these. We are a different creature that has a different, under-explored function. If theater was simply a cultural dinosaur, it would have gone extinct sometime in the 80s

These are a core values that are what keep me doing theater rather than web design or other such nonsense: Critical Community Thinking. Exploration. Resonance. Accessibility. Collaborative Entertainment.

That fact of accessibility – that it is ultimately possible for anyone to create a theatrical event to test their ideas – will always save theater. It is an enduring artform – and has been since the groundlings – the enduring cockroach of human interaction. As ugly as we may seem to some in society, our theaters are where the people on the fringes of society can strengthen society through subversive stories worthy of Shakespeare’s Fool. Ultimately theater teaches us enduring – and valuable – lessons about other human beings, because theater doesn’t happen unless we interact with them first. We’re in the business of changing lives, and often that life is our own.

I’d like to second Don’s question: How do you get your non-theater friends into the theater? What convinces them, other than a favor to you that they will then hold over your head? What descriptions of theater’s value that you read today resonate with you? What are your values for the theater for the future?

Other blogs across the country discussing the value of theater today:

Don Hall
Theatre Ideas
Rat Sass
The Next Stage
Theater is Territory
Bite and Smile
That Sounds Cool
A Rhinestone World

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1 Comments to “Thought Attacks! Speaking About the Value of Theater”

  1. My response is up too now !


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