Monday, June 25, 2007

Theatre Knows Me

One of the things I am hoping to do more of on this blog is provide links to articles I find that are inspiring. If I have time, I will try to summarize them a bit -- and will do the same with books or academic journal articles that people outside of academe might not encounter, but that might be of interest to them. One rich source of articles is the Community Arts Network, an on-line resource which is devoted "promoting information exchange, research and critical dialogue within the field of community-based art." Today, I read a wonderful article by Toronto-based storyteller and arts funder Dan Yashinsky, who provides a delightful and heartening "Funder's Tale." In it, explores the different ways that artists relate to their community, and affect it. While the whole article is definitely worth a read, and I recommend it highly even if you aren't interested in community-based arts, one section really spoke to me.

It’s not that this is a novel artistic approach in human history. Artists have often, and in many cultures, expressed their creativity at a community level. South African theater artist John Kani (who also served as chair of their National Arts Council), described in a Globe and Mail interview the place of artists in African village culture:

Africa is different. There is no Broadway, and the community is what is important. When you become an artist, you become an artist in that village รข€” a storyteller, a dancer, an entertainer, a percussionist. You’re doing it for the village. The fact that it may be seen by people coming from the neighboring village is just another embellishment.

However, in our society, which has seen such rapid and drastic erosions of community life, this is a relatively recent discipline. I’m often reminded of a story I heard from my friend Ron Evans, a Metis oral historian, about the time an anthropologist came to an African village. They had just acquired their first television set and, for several weeks, they spent most of their time watching it. They neglected the old man by the fire, the griot who knew all of the tribe’s history and mythology. But, after awhile, people drifted back to the fire, and eventually there was no one left by the television. The anthropologist, curious, asked one of the villagers, “Don’t you think the TV knows more stories than your old storyteller?” “Oh, yes,” came the reply. “The TV knows more stories, but the storyteller knows me.” Perhaps this need for immediate, intimate, neighbor-to-neighbor, homegrown culture is what gives force to the contemporary community arts movement.

And maybe that simple sentence -- "The TV knows more stories, but the storyteller knows me" -- is the starting point for a way of defining theatre's raison d'etre, for separating it in the public's mind from the mass media, for identifying what makes theatre unique and therefore valuable. Don't get me wrong -- I think mass media is delightful and often powerful, and I am not a theatre snob. But when I go to the movies or turn on the TV, I know that the storyteller doesn't know me, and hasn't created that story with me in mind, and will tell that story the same way no matter who is in the audience -- and that makes a difference. Later this week, I am planning to go see storyteller David Novak do Gilgamesh at the North Carolina Stage Company, and even though he will be telling a story that is many millenia old, I know he lives in Asheville, and has created this performance for us; he will perform the same basic story each night, but he will adjust it slightly according to who is there and how they respond. And that makes me excited to see his work.


Anonymous said...

Well, there it is, the responsibility of theatre nicely nutshelled at last. Beautiful. I've never really enjoyed escapism theatre, live performance that isn't identifiable with my experience tends to make my mind drift. I like my escapism on the big screen with a bag of popcorn or on the couch with a beer, but theatre should never be such a passive experience, it must be a dialogue, an incitement to debate and revelation. I don't mean this in an elitist sense, theatre doesn't have to be intellectual, but it does have to be visceral, and topical to the experience of its village.

Tony Adams said...

A problem I have with a lot of work I see is inherent in the quote "The TV knows more stories, but the storyteller knows me.”

It gets back to the community vs. individual artist debate, and everyone has their thoughts on it. But looking at the work of companies like Ten Thousand Things in MN is a great example of what can happen when artists try to work from the storyteller knows me side.

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