Opening Remarks at the Theatre Beyond the Theatre Seminar, International Association of Theatre Critics Congress, Warsaw, March 2012
What exactly is Theatre Beyond the Theatre? Hopefully over the next few days we will find out from a group of experts gathered from around the world. I am happy to Chair this opening session and to try and summarize our discussions at the end.
Let me begin by saying personally that I do not think that the essence of the subject is what most of us already know as site specific theatre. Theatre has been site specific since the Egyptians. We only have to look at their multi-venued, multi-spaced and multi-day performance that has come down to us as the Abydos Passion Play and its cast of thousands. So that’s not so new.
I also don’t think we are speaking about what Augusto Boal called Invisible Theatre where actors intervene secretly in social activities to try and provoke spectators into politically conscious social actions. I don’t think it’s that.
Nor do I think we are speaking about what was called back in the 50s and 60s Happenings or other related offshoots of the visual arts such as Installations whether created by things or people. The late Japanese provocateur and theatrical genius Shuji Terayama and his Tenjo Sajiki company explored and utilized all of these forms nearly five decades back. And all these forms have been effectively analyzed ad nauseum first by critics who wanted to relate theatre to social utility and in the last 20 years by Richard Schechner clones seeking mainly political and anthropological meanings under the critical terminology of Performance and/or Cultural Studies.
Been there. Done that.
What I think we are really looking at in this title „theatre beyond the theatre” is something more contemporary – perhaps even futurish — that relates to the idea of “play” in a newer way, play as in gaming rather than play as in imitation. It’s a form that most of us as critics or academics have not really come to grips with yet but I sense that it is a form emerging in many places around the world where young audiences find the old ways of theatre simply too formalistic, too rigid and too slow.
A few weeks before coming here I received an invitation to a new show opening in Toronto called Zed.T.O. Being produced in part by a former student of mine — a young critic in fact – – I looked first to see when it was opening. My confusion started there. It was opening July 4 and September 29 and October 15.
The first opening – if I was reading the invitation correctly – was to be at a launch party for a new hi-tech company called BioLogyc. At this launch, audience members would be assigned to one of ten different departments to study aspects of what was being called the company. Each would be invited to explore a variety of new computer equipment and through it would somehow get involved with new products and even the conflicts going on within this large company.
The September opening would take place online And in person. And it will also happen during a “world pandemic.” Some 900 people will be quarantined for a time and will have to make essential decisions to avoid the cataclysm that will descend on them and presumably on the world.
The October opening was to be a four-hour event set in what was described as a rural location. Participants would be bused to this unspecified site and the choices that they make — even on the bus — will affect them, the events that are overtaking them and the future of the world. The press release says that the whole is all about moral and personal choices, and will include a communal meal and the end of the world as we know it.
Is this really even theatre as we know it or is it some other parallel artform in some other parallel universe? Welcome to “theatre beyond the theatre.” I guess.
When I asked my young critical colleague about it, he told me that it was being created at the intersection between “gaming and theatre.” Gaming on computer. Street gaming. Alternative reality gaming. And choice. It is a process not between what is done by an actor for a viewer but rather something done between a user and a system. Participants, I was told, will be able to interact with characters and a variety of simultaneous storylines using twitter, email and phone. And much of it will happen in-person, live. All those new ways that defy the traditional actor-centric model of theatre. Settings, I was told, will be digitally relevant.
Participants in Zed.T.O will become characters and will be asked to take sides on a number of issues. Online. And live. Via links and web pages and hidden maps.
Will we as theatre critics even recognize it? Or is it really theatre beyond the theatre?
To me, the essential subject of the papers this week will somehow be connected to such questions about the nature of performance space as it may exist in the future and the ramifications of what that means. No doubt, some of the papers will articulate where we have come from and some will speak about where we went in recent decades. Some might even dare to speculate on where we are going as “theatre moves beyond the theatre.” Indeed, do we have the critical vocabulary yet to describe these newer movements?
Don Rubin is the President of the Canadian Theatre Critics Association and a member of the IATC Executive Board. He is the founding editor of the Canadian Theatre Review and was series editor of Routledge’s six-volume World Encyclopedia of Contemporary Theatre. A member of the editorial board of the webjournal Critical Stages, he served as Chair of the opening and closing sessions of the Theatre Beyond the Theatre” seminars.