Thursday, September 22, 2005

Regionalitis II

An anonymous reader posts a comment on my entry into the "regionalitis" discussion:

"While regional theater's can do without another tired production of "Burn
This", I think you should encourage playwrights not to write for a local, or
national artist, but to write plays that speak to the human condition.I was born
in the South, and although I escaped to NYC, I still have an affection for parts
of Virginia and Texas, not to mention North Cackalackey.Perhaps I have become
elitist. Nine years with the urban Yankess does that to a man. Anyway, my point
is: isn't encouraging regionalism asking playwrights to behave in the same
insular way as Mr. New York Playwright Writing Something Pretensious and
Urbane?(I know the South, and it has other vibrations besides environmental

I couldn't agree more -- plays that speak to the human condition: yes! I am not suggesting regional subject matter, or a parochial viewpoint, or insularity. But I am suggesting that the artist create for a specific community, and recognize that people in different places are different. Let me give a rather simplistic example that might help illuminate my idea, which I may have made hopelessly abstract: A German playwright who hopes to speak to a German audience writes in German. His work is shaped by that language, and by the particular cultural norms that inform that language. What I am suggesting is that different parts of our enormous country have different "languages," different ways of experiencing the world, different touchstones, different rhythms.

Putting this in more general terms (and perhaps more radical terms as well), I think that theatre artists need to conceive of themselves as local artists, not national ones. The theatre, unlike a mass medium like film, takes place in a single specific time and in a single specific place -- in other words, it is local. This is its strength! A performance is unique, individual -- and so is the audience seeing it. We tend to speak about attracting "an audience" as if "an audience" was a separate species, like a bear or a beagle. "Heree, audience audience audience" we coo, proffering our treats.

But a theatre audience is comprised of a collection of individuals who come to see a play on a specific night for specific reasons with specific expectations and a specific background. And nobody else in the entire world is seeing that performance, and no group of people is the same as this one. This is exciting! Put in the terms of Walter Benjamin, theatre is not "art in the age of mechanical reproduction" and it never will be (no matter how Disney wants to homogenize it); rather, theatre is art with an "aura." But it isn't just the art work that has an aura, so does the audience. The individuals in our theatre on any given night are people we theatre artists can meet on the street, talk to in the supermarket line, eat with at the Rotary Club, stand next to at our kids' soccer games. We can tune into the thoughts, concerns, and joys of the people with whom we live, and we can talk to them with our art. We could have a conversation, not a lecture! It might be a conversation about the human condition, about what it feels like to be alive today in this world -- Big Topics, Universal Ideas -- but it would be a conversation between specific people who share a context.

To my mind, the only reason this doesn't sound incredibly exciting to every theatre artist in the world is that we have become infected with globalism. We want to talk to the nation, to the world. But you can't talk to the world, you can only talk at it. You can talk to individuals -- the individuals who are in your theatre on a particular night.

Why isn't that enough?

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