LEAPpost 5: reflections

So there’s been a phrase jumping around in my head since working on LEAP which I feel like writing. But I can’t be sure if it’s authentic or if it’s just hyperbole to get a rise out of readers. The phrase is:

I have seen the future of theatre, and it is long-form improvisation.

After wrestling with this for a bit, I have refined it:

I have seen the future of my theatre, and it is long-form improvisation.

Over the last several years I have been exploring actor-generated theatre in a variety of guises. I have been creating it, studying it, performing it: meetings for theatre, commedia dell’Arte, long-form. A great deal of my professional life has been spent teaching actors to make artistically empowering choices. A great deal of the artistic friction in my life has come from my exploration of the actor/director relationship and my resistance to hierarchical power structures. All of this is rooted in family-of-origin issues which have made me who I am. My creativity as an actor has been an ongoing journey of self-actualization through the guise of theatre. I am most delighted and provoked when a role reveals something about my self to me. Sometimes this revelation is painful and sometimes joyful. Recently, it has dawned on me that the more solipsistic the journey is the more damaging to me. So in order for the journey to bring me to well-being the discoveries must be shared, must serve a purpose greater than my own betterment, and that purpose is service to my community.

This journey finds its apotheosis in long-form improv. Absent the dictates of the conventional theatre script and the conventional theatre director, the actor is left to find his way through an outrageous and spontaneous balancing act: on one side his own creative impulses and visions; on the other his complete willingness to follow someone else’s creative impulse. In this – the central creative dynamic in long-form improv – the paradox of actor creativity is brought to life on stage. It’s all about me and it’s all about you, and we don’t cancel each other out.

But what narcissistic crap it would be if it was all just a means to perform our own therapy. And so we must be conjoined with the audience, and it is their secrets and unspoken desires which form the foundation of what we make. The initial union is not between actors, but between actor and audience. This union binds the experience in a way that makes it uniquely personal for audience and actor alike. In doing so, long-form capitalizes on the essential feature which makes theatre distinct from film and TV: we are all in the same room together. What is made and witnessed over the course of a performance will never be made or witnessed again. Long-form takes this essential aspect of theatre and puts it in bold face with a line underneath it.

Don’t get me wrong: there is something indisputably theraputic about long-form, especially for the performers. But I have always maintained that creativity in any form is theraputic, in that it focuses life-energy outward and assists the person in feeling useful. Long-form just brings the stuff to the fore: you know, all your stuff, your fears, issues, desires and wishes. And when all your stuff is heard and affirmed by a warm and supportive company of fellow artists, as mine was, you almost don’t need to perform at all to be a little healed. But then, when you perform, and you sense your stuff being shook out and flapped around the stage in different ways by you and others, it stops having such a hold on you.

And don’t get me wrong here either: we had a director. She gave us notes, provoked us forward, reigned us in, adjusted our impuses (or tried to), negotiated situations – in short, she functioned in all the ways a conventional director functions, except one. She had very little to do with the stories we told on stage, or the choices we made while telling them. Whereas a conventional director assumes a kind of ultimate responsibility for the thing presented, our director had almost no responsibility for the thing presented. She had responsibilty for the form it took and our training in that form. But on the night itself, we were on our own.

What do we crave in theatre? Well, the answer to that question will be different for each of us. Certainly, for those who crave the elegantly crafted two-hour story, the beautifully choreographed ensemble, the knock-out show tune or the gorgeous marriage of poetry and idea, long-form will come up short. And yet, I have seen and participated in moments in long-form in which each of these virtues was evident (well, maybe not the knock-out show tune). And the fact that everyone in the room knows it is being made right in front of them makes its genesis electrifying. But underneath the variety of theatre we crave, I think we each crave the same thing: the communal experience. It is simply this experience which has kept the theatre alive, I’m convinced: warm bodies together in the same big room, elbow to elbow, witnessing other warm bodies doing something fabulous. The same air being passed around. The same laughter being shared. The same Spirit being worshipped.

In this modern era we live in, in which we are in continual danger of being permanently attached to our digital devices, in which we spend more and more hours each day stimulating ourselves and our children with electronic media, in which we the time spent amongst each other shrinks each year until, sadly, we will only see people outside our tight little circle in emergencies. Even universities – once the the place where we met the rest of the world – are being offered now through computers, and some parents, convinced their children will be taught heresy in actual schools, or worse, gunned down by some cyber-depressed adolescent, keep their children at home and school them there. This is the age of isolation. No wonder so many young people are depressed. No wonder so many of us are on Prozac.

Communion is the antidote. Communion is the solution. Somehow, joy is created when we are together, even when the thing we see is sad. We are reassured that the world is safe, that others have feelings like ours, that we needn’t be ashamed of who we are, or who you are. In the immediacy of of the theatrical experience, our isolation is melted and we soothe each other. This is why, after seeing LEAP, my friend Chris told me he felt like he been to church. It wasn’t because he was made aware that he was seeing and hearing something holy being delivered to him by holy people. It was because he felt joined to the common everyone in the room with him, and the feeling of being joined reminded him of God. I say, it was God doing the joining. But that’s just me.