Letter from Prague
Notes on a theatre festival.
Back here in Prague, about 40 people of ALL ages were sitting in the grass watching a small company of actors who all seemed to be in their mid-fifties. They were performing something in Czech that looked like a comic melodrama based on some classical theme – like a send up of Hamlet. Each of the characters died one by one in some comical way. One old guy with a black top hat was holding a script. Some of the men wore tights and doublets, some wore capes. The women wore long dresses and waved handkerchiefs around when in some emotional state. It was Czech hambone theatre. And we were all loving it. Was it “good” theatre? Was it “bad”? Some acting teachers, critics or academics might label it as bad. There was nothing very artful about they were doing, nothing “believable”. But we in the audience were enjoying it.
More and more I believe that these value- laden terms “good” and “bad”, supposedly based on objective assessments, are not only baseless, but actually cripple the theatre and the people trying to make it. They make us worry that they have meaning (they don’t – they’re the same as saying vanilla is “good” and chocolate is “bad”), and that we must measure ourselves by them, which leads to paranoia, fear and self-consciousness.
The seductive aspect of it is that they are so easy to assign – “That was so good” “That was terrible” – and they make the one delivering them feel powerful. “It was bad” or “it was good” get extrapolated out into article-length columns we call “reviews, but using terms like that, which form the basis of most of the criticism in the US, and which drive the way theatre is studied (we want our students to make “good” theatre), is a kind of laziness. We can leave it at that. It was bad, I’m the authority, end of story. “It was bad” is a blanket statement, and it covers not only the thing being judged, but the people who liked it as well, since anyone who likes the bad thing must be a fool. But if I tell you I didn’t like it, then you might ask me why, and I will have to explain myself.
This requires that I tell you a little about me, my tastes, my experience – which makes me vulnerable and diminishes the power inherent in the judgment I might have passed instead: it was bad. It also invites your response, and suggests that it might be equally valid, a position few critics or academics feel comfortable taking. And then I have to dissect the experience, open it up, describe why it fell short of my expectations. This requires some work, and some humility.
I liked the hambone theatre troupe. They made me laugh, which is a gift under any circumstances. I admired their courage to perform outdoors on a hot day. I was touched by their devotion to the same art I love, and I recognized them as my kinsman. I could have been one of them – hell, I HAVE been one of them. I didn’t like the teenage improv troupe I saw a little earlier. I found them a bit tedious, the language barrier was more of an issue, and it felt a little hap-hazard to me. But so what? The teens watching them soaked it up.
So what do we teach if not “good” theatre? How do we educate discernment in theatre making? I think the key is community service. We need to ask: what are we giving to the community, and how can we deliver it most effectively, comically, provocatively? What does that community need from us? Then we need to witness the response our community gives us. If it is positive, then we have succeeded. If not, we have some work to do. The hambone Czechs knew exactly what they were about, had no pretension, and wanted only to please us – us, the ones standing there in the heat with them. They succeeded.
This is why a lot of “art” theatre pisses me off so much sometimes. There is an almost aggressive rejection of story telling, as if the value of a piece of theatre has nothing to do with whether or not anyone likes it or gets it; as if the opaqueness of a piece of theatre is in some way a mark of its value, common appreciation being, well, common. This is also the trap of university theatre, in which there is a closed loop of audience response, and the theatre makers are generally not held accountable by the communities they serve, insulated as they are by their positions in the academy.
The theatre I want to make goes directly to the people – the people who were laying on the grass in Prague, the blue collar guy who shook my hand outside the Walnut St. Theatre because he saw me in Stones In His Pockets, the subscribers, and especially the young ones.
This was what made this festival today really cool. The average age in attendance was probably 17. All these young Czechs wandering around taking in music and theatre and each other. This is why I am grateful for the dreamer project and Lady from the Sea. These are projects inspired by the young. I have little interest in telling them what to do – I want them to tell me their dreams and then I want to be a part of them, assist them, and along the way weave my dreams into theirs.
I so look forward to our beautiful dream come true, our interwoven becoming.