Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Theatre's Value in Three Words

A group of us (see list below) have decided to blog about one topic today in the hopes of creating some synergy. The topic is the value of theatre -- what makes theatre unique and/or valuable in today's world. The experience for the theatre blog reader, I suspect, will be like looking at a cubist painting in which you simultaneously see a single form from a variety of perspectives and times. We might call this "Theatre Descending a Staircase." (Let's hope, following the Duchampian theme, it does not more closely resemble his "Fountain.")


Anyway, Slay, the founder of this particular feast (thanks for the suggestion, my friend) includes in his fascinating post Ben Cameron's idea, common to most for-profit businesses these days, that theatre needs an "elevator speech" or "talking points" -- a few well-chosen words that express what theatre is about, why it is important, why someone should want to attend it. Sort of like the devilvet challenge (say it in 250 words), only even shorter. When I did the devilvet challenge, I used 108 words, which was pretty good for me. But today, I wanted to boil it down even further. I got it down to three words:

Flow + Dialog = Theatre

There you go! Check out everybody else's ideas at -- what? That's not clear? OK, don't blame me if I go on and on. And on and on.

Flow
Mihaly Csikszentmihaly (jeez -- where were the Ellis Island officials when this guy was emigrating from Hungary? -- anyway, it is pronounced "chick-SENT-me-high," which actually is sort of fun to say) is the man behind the concept of flow (cf Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience , Creativity: Flow and the Psychology of Discovery and Invention, and Finding Flow: The Pscyhology of Engagement with Everyday Life). Wikipedia summarizes the idea thusly: "Flow is the mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity." It occurs when there is a confluence of high challenge and high skill. Csikszentmihaly (thank God for cut-and-paste) says "Very rarely do people report flow in passive leisure activities, such as watching television or relaxing."

I think flow is what many of us think theatre ought to be: challenge plus skill; and its absence is what we complain about when we talk about Broadway or Broadway in Chicago smashtaculars. But this isn't geographical or commercial -- you can find flow on Broadway (I think, for instance, that Sondheim creates flow in the musical theatre) and you can find relaxation at a storefront. It is about intention.

One of the keys to flow is that there needs to be a balance between ability level and challenge. If we conceive of ourselves, as artists, as the creators of flow experiences, then it is contingent on us to know and understand our audience so that we can create productions that challenge spectators to dance along the edge of their skills. Smashtaculars underestimate the audience's skill and keeps the challenge level low, which ultimately leads to boredom for the audience. But the opposite is often true as well: artists will pitch the level of challenge too high, reflecting their own skill level rather than the audience's, which ultimately leads to frustration for the audience. Like the three bears, we want the balance between challenge and the skill level to be just right.

Dialogue
This is the promise of presence. Because the artist and the audience during a performance shares the same time and place, dialog is possible. Not true for TV, radio, or film, right? Not true for books or visual art. Only the live performing arts have this possibility.

What is sad is that we have forgotten this in favor of monologue: we talk, you listen, then we run away and you go home. Dialog doesn't have to happen as part of the play (although it certainly could, and can be powerful), but it ought to happen sometime during the experience. People want to talk to each other -- not only the one of two people who accompanied them to the play, but to others as well. And if we could facilitate that talking by giving them a common point of departure (the play) and building the structure for it to take place -- among themselves, with the artists -- then the experience has a chance to expand into interpersonal flow. Conversation is another activity that Csikszentmihaly lists as having great potential for creating flow.

Margaret J. Wheatley writes in Turning to One Another: Simple Conversations to Restore Hope to the Future: "We humans want to be together. We only isolate ourselves when we're hurt by others, but alone is not our natural state. Today, we live in an unnatural state -- separating ourselves rather than being together. We become hopeful when somebody tells the truth. I don't know why this is, but I experience it often. Truly connecting with another human being gives us joy."

The challenge is for artists to tell the truth, and create a work of art that lets others share their truth. Telling the truth is a high challenge, and it requires high skill to engage it, and the result is joy, flow.

So:

flow + dialog = theatre

Who wouldn't value an opportunity to have a peak experience and then talk about it?

Please also visit Theatreforte, Theater for the Future, Rat Sass, Parabasis, The Next Stage, Steve on Broadway, Theatre is Territory, Freedom Spice in the New Mash-Up World, Mike Daisey, An Angry White Guy in Chicago, Bite & Smile, and That Sounds Cool. And devilet. And Mission Paradox. And Tony at Jay Raskolnikov. Paul Rekk twice!

And be sure to check back here for additions to that list.

And join the dialog!

1 comment:

Adam said...

Add me to the list

http://missionparadox.typepad.com/the_mission_paradox_blog/2008/03/redefining-the.html