Making The Theatre Matter: Part One
Ralph Richardson, John Gielgud, and Peter Hall, in rehearsal for Harold Pinter's No Man's Land (1975).
This question--or, to be more precise, this argument--has been with us since the first person stepped forward and spoke to an assembled mass. Why are we here? What purpose does this serve? What, precisely, is being offered, served, gleaned? I believe the human nature is curious, so it seeks answers through stories and histories and interaction with other people, and the theatre can provide these answers. I also believe that human nature is always in a state of growth, easily bored, sated quickly, then forms a new list of questions. Change is not a bad thing, and virtually everything that is new about the theatre since I entered it has been good. By that I mean methods of delivery, the quality and training of writers, actors, directors, and designers. Where I find myself frightened is in the relationship people have with the theatre: They no longer need it. They no longer really want it. The theatre, I'm afraid, is here and available but sits waiting for some interest. I don't think the theatre should become a luxury in our lives--something to commemorate an anniversary or a promotion or to seal an especially pivotal business or romantic partnership. I do see that the theatre is no longer so much a place where people gather and listen and argue and cry and laugh and take the play and its ideas home with them. Of course the theatre matters, but I must say that a great deal of what is done in the name of the theatre does not. (1991)
The very thing I most feared has finally happened: The theatre does not matter to anyone, or to any group of people, other than those who work in it or need it to survive for their own purposes. This is a suicidal and circular firing range in which we find ourselves. The theatre holds a unique and sacred place in our culture and in our world through its ability to hold, to transfix, an audience and make it think, make it angry, make it see things and people in an entirely new way. And I think we blew it. I think we got terribly scared by movies and by television and by games and by a thousand different forms of stimulation that kept people at home or in other venues or simply away from the theatre. The theatre does not need, I think, to compete with amusement parks or motion pictures: The theatre does very well what it ought always to be doing. I sound like a rhapsodic old man when I talk about a time when so many people--working class people, people in office jobs, students--regularly went to the theatre, stayed to talk and argue with us at the stage door, engaged us in conversation on buses and street corners. This happened. This is gone. Theatre is now a glittery stop on the tourist routes; it is not a vital, essential element in the mental and spiritual diets of ordinary, curious people. And I'll be damned if I know how we can change this. (1993)
I don't like the persistent questioning of the theatre: I think it changes our relationship to the theatre, and makes us look at it in an entirely new, unflattering way. Julie Harris used to say something along the lines that we should never say about any thing that we love what we would not say about any person that we loved, and I subscribe to this theory. I love and respect the theatre, and I believe in it. I believe that it will matter always, and even if it matters to a smaller group of people, it still matters, and it must be honored and constantly improved. Of course I can't be willfully ignorant and dismiss the fact that people care more about musicals and stars now than they do about being moved and startled by plays. I don't like this; I'm saddened by this. Nonetheless, the theatre must be worked in, worked on, improved, loved, nurtured, re-tooled. We are the ones who will make it matter. (1995)
Why do we look toward others to improve the theatre? Or anything for that matter? We--all of us--inherit the arts, the government, the world--that we deserve. We fuel whatever environment or culture in which we find ourselves, and yet we are perpetually pointing fingers and crying to the skies and looking for a savior or an answer or an alibi or a way out. We remain the solution to all of the problems, particularly when it comes to matters of culture. The theatre, the cinema, the books that are published--these are all responses to our desires and our needs. Naturally, there is a small group of concerned citizens who decry the nature of the so-called popular culture, but they are the ones who need to ignore the detritus and go off and do their own work. I was spawned by such people--the people who take great risks and produce something that moves them, that matters to them, and then says to like-minded people 'Here, take this.' This will always be the way, I suppose, but I do not see any great value in perpetually moaning about the decline in the work of others: We focus on our own work, the work of others we admire, and the attentions and the needs of those who come to us in support and with hearts and eyes and minds wide open. (1982)
The revolution, as Tennessee used to say, will begin in small ways within each of us interested in changing things. The revolutionary act is when a writer sits at a table and writes a play he loves and believes in and then offers it to others for opinions and approval. The revolutionary act is when a producer and a director and a group of actors say yes and attempt to bring the vision to life. The revolutionary act is when an audience of people show up and give you their undivided attention for a couple of hours and agree to take this journey with you. It's a slow journey, but it is revolutionary. It's a rare journey, but it still happens. I think we have to honor those who join this revolution, no matter the position they take, or where they take it. When you're hungry, you'll go anywhere for food or a job to buy it. When you're lonely, you'll go almost anywhere for comfort and company. When you're tired, you can sleep almost anywhere you can. When we really want the theatre we claim we dream of, care about, crave, remember and miss, then we'll make the revolutionary steps and it will appear. (2009)
TO BE CONTINUED