In Summary

Don Rubin’s remarks from the conclusion of the seminar „Theatre Beyond the Theatre” (March 2012, Warsaw) during the Congress IATC

Uwagi końcowe prof. Dona Rinia po seminarium „Teatr poza teatrem” (marzec 2012) podczas Kongresu AICT w Wraszawie

I think it has become clear to everyone working in the theatre these days – and clear through many of these papers — that the attempts during the 1960s and 70s to blur the lines between theatre and life, between theatre and the visual arts, between life and the imitation of life, between actions and imitations of actions are now bursting into new bloom as we move into the second decade of the 21st century.


In Portugal and in Nigeria we have theatre in kitchens and at funerals. From Korea we heard that there is theatre on cruise boats and from Finland we heard about a merging of theatre into circus forms. In Canada, theatre, we were told, can simply involve a walk or a visit to a play (with commentary) where we are encouraged to see the world with fish eyes. We heard about Genet being performed in people’s living rooms and we have heard about theatre as synchronized swimming and even as flash mobs.


The many papers certainly gave us some useful definitions and critical terms to use such as “mobile” theatre (in which the audience moves from place to place), “immersive” theatre in which we follow actors around in defined spaces, and “spectacle” theatre as a form that provides useful contrasts with more traditional mimetic theatre.


Indeed, we were told that in North America, the whole notion of studying theatre has already been replaced in universities by the notion of studying “performance.” Thank you Richard Schechner.


But is this really so new or particularly radical? I suggest that Boal’s Invisible Theatre — a theatre that could emerge in supermarkets or police stations — was more radical as a notion of theatre beyond the theatre. That was five decades ago. Perhaps it still is more radical.


Barba has certainly been doing improvised theatre on the streets since the 70s and Brook’s notions of “neutrality” brought theatre into any defined, any “empty space.” His own work in quarries and on carpets while travelling in Africa certainly brought the notion of site specific to new heights but even that, as I suggested in my introductory remarks, has been around since the Egyptians. The Abydos Passion Play ran three days, included ritual murder and covered an entire city. So is site specific very new or is it just a new take on an old idea? And couldn’t one argue that every production is site specific, requiring the do-ers to adapt to realities whether inside a theatre building or outside a defined theatre space. I would certainly suggest that we as critics have been dealing with site specific work for centuries.



So are we really into any new areas. Virtually all these things have been dealt with in the past by those of us who try to record and comment on theatre and they are still taking place all around us. I would suggest that underlying all these papers has been a suggestion that we need to move beyond most of this to really begin to look at the real meaning of “theatre beyond the theatre.” I am suggesting here that what we really need to grapple with is not “the critic and theatre space” but the notion of critical distance in the new theatre for both audience and critic. My own sense is that more and more theatre is seeking to invade audience space, to implicate the audience and therefore the critic into the theatrical experience, to personalize and make even more subjective the critical response.

Certainly as the traditional theatre building becomes less and less relevant to this movement, the whole notion of a clearly defined space becomes moot. Our Nigerian colleague, Emmanuel Dandaura, suggested that perhaps the most profound human concerns are simply too large anymore for a traditional theatre building.

Brent Meersman from South Africa movingly suggested that there was theatre long before there were purpose-built theatre spaces. As he put it, „theatre buildings tend to be aloof and intimidating in some countries.”

So if traditional theatre spaces are no longer relevant, are audiences? Savas Patsalidis from Greece suggested that the whole historical trajectory of theatre has been a taming of the audience, a controlling of the audience. On the positive side, I would suggest, it is a new interest in Boal’s notion of activating the spectator. Maybe this is a real clue to looking for and at the essence of “theatre beyond the theatre.”


As I said at the beginning of the seminar, what I see more and more among the young is an obsession with computers and I-Pads and I-Phones and with personal and group gaming where you are either your OWN opponent or the opponent is unknown (except as a name or code number). The real fun, the real entertainment for the young is in the online battle. (Battle. In Greek, agon). You are the main contestant, the main agonist and you are in conflict with some unknown antagonist. Theatrical notions all. Conflict and contest.


I suggest that as young theatre makers connect their computer literacy and sophistication to theatre they are starting to realize that their own contemporaries want a theatre that is both computer friendly and as intensely competitive and as personally connected as games and gaming.

Let me go back to that new work I mentioned in my introduction, that event now in production in Toronto as an example. Called Zed.TO, it begins with people being invited to a defined space (a high tech computer centre) where they are asked to check out a whole series of new computer online games. And when one of those games becomes deadly — yes, there is a script — everyone is asked to try and find solutions by the owners of the space (live actors by any other name). Live actors. Live audience. Live computers.

Part I ends with the whole city of Toronto in danger.

Part II is the complication. Turns out that it is not just Toronto but the world that is in danger.

Or should we say act I and act two though they take place months apart.

Part III — again months later — the doom deadline nears. Every decision, every game played every move online now has consequences in the reality show that is unfolding and being recorded.

I can’t reveal much more. I don’t know that the creators themselves have much more as I say this. But you can start the game right now totally innocently from anywhere in the world online. The URL is It starts with the words “ in 12 months, the world will end. You decide the part you’ll play.”

You can also follow the action on twitter. The hashtag is @zedtoronto

And this is not the first such example.

Are we as critics ready for this new “theatre beyond the theatre?”

For me it is still theatre: it is still at root interactions between live actors, an uber director and a team of scenarists who are plotting in traditional terms actions and characters. And members of the audience sitting there or at home watching, playing, gaming with the live actors. One might wonder who the real ubermarionettes are in this new theatre for the 21st century?

For me, theatre beyond the theatre might well be games and gaming because even there it is still actors imitating, writers writing, directors directing, designers designing in virtual space and personal space. Site specific theatre taken to new heights. Texts created by and controlled by the audience, the gamers themselves.

Is this the future?

As our hosts here in Warsaw asked in the printed introduction to this seminar, will we be ready to meet in places not originally created for theatrical purposes? Will it be a victory for mass culture or is this just a transitional phenomenon? Are we as critics able to give it a name? How will we address this dramatic, spatial and aesthetic reconsideration of contemporary theatre?

How indeed?

Earlier today, Thalia laureate Kapila Vatsayan from India asked how to touch the ground without hurting the earth? I wonder if this new theatre is not a way to do precisely that.

Savas Patsalidis argued that the way of the future is to get audiences to participate, to explore, to interrogate the way we receive and translate information in everyday life. He called that, rather eloquently, “a negotiation between high art and bullshit.”

Whatever it is, it is certainly a way of making the theatre a more active and personal experience, a more optimistic experience than passively waiting for the future to descend, as Japanese critic Manabu Noda suggested, for “the future dead to give us some answers, to send us a message.”

Perhaps as theatre people we all need to look at our computers and our notebooks and our I-things with new respect. Perhaps they really do hold the future, even of theatre.


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.


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