by 99 Seats
Let's talk about all the good things and the bad things that may be.
(Sorry. I had to complete the lyric. It would have killed me forever.)
Theatricality in America today, I would argue, is an MFA-inspired phenomenon produced almost solely by playwrights and duly supported by directors. The resulting highly theatrical plays teeter on the edge of magical realism or plummet over the top with plot elements and stage directions that seem derived from a handbook on wizardry. It’s worth noting that this new theatricality is woven into the plot, making it impossible to ignore in the way the old stage directions (She stands, he sits) were and are ignored.
She makes another point I rather like, as well:
At best, this can be charming, but at worst, and far too often, the result is whimsicality at the expense of motivation and an apolitical disconnect from the real world. It’s particularly troubling that this kind of work has won the undying approval of the New York critical establishment at the expense of equally stimulating reality-based work, which often contains political themes. Critics, seemingly desperate for any kind of stage magic, are finding it where they can. And thus, “theatrical” plays dominate the theater landscape country-wide in a process of proliferation and risk-aversion described so well in Todd London’s book, Outrageous Fortune.
RTWT for her insights on German theatre and the role of the direction and all. But let's talk about this whole "theatricality" stuff for a second, hm, shall we?
The first out of the box to come to the defense of theatricality is an artist I have much love and respect for, the ever-awesome Taylor Mac. He comments:
Plays have always been theatrical. It’s not a trend. The Greek plays are theatrical. It’s only in the last hundred years they’ve been interpreted as kitchen sink dramas. Theatricality is traditional. Realism has only been with us for a hundred years and is the real trend (or what I like to call the real avant-garde). I’m not dismissing your desire to see more collaboration (yes, please) but I take offense (though lovingly so) to the notion that playwrights are writing theatrical work because of an MFA trend. Maybe those MFA programs are simply teaching theater history (I wouldn’t know as I didn’t go to an MFA program). What I do know is my work is highly theatrical because I enjoy that kind of theater When I write theatrical stage directions it’s always in the hope that my descriptions will inspire more vision, collaboration, thought, passion, and clarity to story, not less.
There's obviously some stuff there I agree with and that makes basic sense. But in reading it, and in reading what Lydia wrote, I'm struck again, as I have been before, by this nonsense word "theatricality." Seriously, what does that mean? And what does that mean in relation to theatre history? Is Romeo and Juliet "theatrical?" In what way? Is The Misanthrope? How are we defining this concept? Is Death of a Salesman realism? Not really. Hell, is any play truly, honestly realism? Is it "real" to have rooms with only three walls? Is it real to have all of these exciting, life-changing events happening in such a short time span? What is real about any of what we do?
I think it's lazy to use this blanket term "theatricality" when what we're really talking about is "weird shit happening on stage." And, contra Taylor, I do think there is a strong trend towards "weird shit happening on stage" as the signifier that we're seeing "theatre." If there isn't an impossible stage direction or some outlandish, stylized element, it seems like people feel like they were somehow cheated or the playwright lacks "imagination." I do sometimes feel like we're moving to a place where all playwrights talk like Bill Murray in Tootsie. The best thing someone can tell us is "I saw your play...what happened?" So we can say, "Well, it was theatrical."
It's lazy. Spectacle is one thing. Magic realism is a style, a choice. Whimsy is a style. But they shouldn't be the requirement. We should have room for all sorts of stories told in a theatre. That's what makes it theatrical. You're in a theatre. It's funny to me that another signifier of "theatricality" is the use of video and media elements. Think about this for a second. One of the rallying cries of the avant-garde is "Don't be television!" And how do we distinguish ourselves from television? By projecting filmed images on a screen. Seems...odd, don't it? Having two characters act out a scene on video is "theatrical" but having two living breathing actors performing on stage, well, that's "realism."
When we talk about aesthetics in this industry, I feel like we spend so much time and energy on the trapping of style and presentation and never talk about content, about the work. We define our terms, especially for more contemporary work, not by what the work is saying or even by the intent of the artists, but by the technology and the somewhat superficial details of language and presentation. I don't think this is serving our field very well. Rather than worrying whether a work is "realistic" or "theatrical," let's talk about what it's saying about the world, how strong its message is, what the connection to the audience is like. Otherwise...we're missing the forest for the trees.
Oh, and, in the words of Slim Shady, guess who's back?