On Resisting Complacency
As someone born in 1979, my demographic cohort is ambiguous. My analog childhood in the 1980s speaks to an identification with Generation X, with its memories of rotary phones, encyclopedias, and scheduled broadcast television. My digital adolescence, however, arrived in the form of a modem connection to America Online in the early 1990s, and the attendant chatrooms, file sharing, and flattening of geographical distance clearly recognizable in the mature technology of today, and ascribed to Millennials. As such, I find myself both an enthusiastic embracer of new technology, as well as prone to fits of analog nostalgia, “anastalgia”, for “the way things used to be”.
In keeping with the spirit and resources of the 21st century, however, I must recognize the most useful definition of the word “resistance” is gleaned directly from Google’s search engine itself:
re·sist·ance /rəˈzistəns/ noun: 1. The refusal to accept or comply with something; the attempt to prevent something by action or argument.
However, to define theater, the quintessential analog art form, I choose to return to an analog source: the English theater director Peter Brook, who describes the term as follows in the first two sentences of his seminal 1968 work, The Empty Space: “I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
An act of theater, therefore, requires the physical presence of both artist and audience, the result of a kind of analog alchemy. It is impossible in a vacuum and cannot exist without both components. As such, theater is a profoundly intimate art form, belonging wholly to its community, with artist and audience both belonging to that group.
In essence, an act of theater is an act of self-examination and discussion by a community, in real time, with the goal of resolution and progress, often resulting in a shared sense of catharsis.
At best, the impact of an act of theater is something intangible and unquantifiable, something truly greater than the sum of its parts that allows a community to take a long, hard look at itself and honestly see where it is going.
With the inherent erosion of the communal and new normal of the personal that is the quintessence of the digital age, in a world where even telephones and screens come in single serving sizes, the coming together of groups of individuals beyond basic family units is an increasingly rare occurrence.
Even a cursory glance at Western politics in 2016 and 2017 belies extreme polarization, toxic political environments where dignified, meaningful debate between opposing parties seems about as likely as the fabled formula for transmuting lead to gold. The climate revealed by the narrow victories of both the United Kingdom’s referendum to leave the European Union and the ascension of Donald J. Trump to the Presidency of the United States, with an Electoral College win and a popular election loss by nearly three million votes, is bleak. It is made up of communities so splintered, alienated, and frightened that they fail to notice what they have in common is far more than what purportedly keeps them apart.
All the same, these communities are capable of rising together as one when the proverbial push comes to shove. One of the best examples was seen on January 29, 2017, when thousands of United States citizens exercised their constitutional right to free expression when taking to the streets and airports to protest the Trump Administration’s Executive Order 13769, “Protecting the Nation from Foreign Terrorist Entry into the United States”. This certainly constituted a communal act of resistance.
I believe theater, with its component parts of artist and audience, can fill an absolutely essential role in initiating dialogue within communities, correcting the profoundly disturbing practice of denying the basic humanity of all whose opinions differ.
In pursuing resistance against the fear of the other, resistance against nationalism, against greed, corporatism, discrimination, fear, demonization, and scapegoating, there is one thing theater must resist first and foremost: complacency.
Google tells us complacency is: “A feeling of smug or uncritical satisfaction with oneself or one's achievements.”
In theater practice, especially within the United States, this complacency can arise from the sentiment that theater can remain essential within a vacuum, by continuing business as usual and failing to passionately struggle for innovation. It can arise from a view of theater as an innate good, the cultural equivalent of those healthy vegetables that must be consumed, no matter how bland, in order to achieve a balanced diet.
It should be no surprise such notions result in what Brook referred to as “Deadly Theatre”. As theater practitioners, we should be shocked into rapt attention when considering that while the following statement was written nearly 50 years ago, it remains as apt now as it was then: “All through the world theatre audiences are dwindling. There are occasional new movements, good new writers and so on, but as a whole, the theatre not only fails to elevate or instruct, it hardly even entertains.” (Brook, 10).
Indeed, as desolate as Brook saw the situation surrounding the theatrical form in 1968, it has been exacerbated exponentially by the digital revolution. Video on demand has resulted in additional direct competition with theater, a form already put through its paces by cinema, television, and videocassette recorders. For theater to achieve its potential, its practitioners must bravely and honestly face its limitations and transform them into opportunities. They must understand the difficulties of a form most often practiced as closed room art, as art that can only take place in a specific location at a specific time. They must ensure the theater they make represents the community whose story they are telling. They must steadfastly resist creating the theatrical equivalent of George Saunders’ “braindead megaphone” and hold themselves to strict standards of inclusiveness for all members of the community. They must dare to create new forms which allow audience members the opportunity to discuss, exchange, share opinions, and express themselves.
As the German cultural scholar Thomas Renz elucidates in his book Nicht-Besucherforschung, or Non-Audience Research, some fifty percent of the German population never attends a publicly subsidized cultural event at a theater, museum, or concert hall. This statistic is all the more shocking in a country with highly subsidized culture, as Germany is, where even top ticket prices are a fraction of the cost of admission to Off-Broadway productions, and deep discounts exist for broad swaths of the population, ranging from students and trainees to retirees and the unemployed. Despite low economic barriers to attendance, half of the population choose to spend their cultural currency elsewhere, like cinemas or sports arenas.
This must serve as a desperately needed wakeup call. At its best and most essential, the role of theater is, as Hamlet tells us: "the purpose of playing, whose end, both at the first and now, was and is, to hold, as 'twere, the mirror up to nature; to show virtue her own feature, scorn her own image, and the very age and body of the time his form and pressure."
An audience must recognize itself on stage, as the protagonist of its own story, for this mirror to be held up to nature effectively. An audience must be both empowered and invited to participate; not simply sit and stare in the darkness as a cultural equivalent of the Brussels sprouts that must be consumed in order to be rewarded with dessert.
The global political environment reveals a populace desperately seeking dialogue, common ground, and a shared sense of connection in times of division. As theater practitioners, we must be relentless in removing barriers to participation and dialogue, even if they seem entrenched within the medium itself. Watching theater in a closed room, silently, in the dark, is not the only way the form can be practiced.
Artists working from a place of cultural privilege must put themselves in the position of the audience with whom they desire to speak. Innovative measures must be taken to resist the production of “Deadly Theatre,” to find ways of taking theater out of theaters, and reaching those potential audience members who will never set foot inside a theater.
The times in which we live clearly demand resistance to nationalism, myopia, discrimination, fear, and bigotry. Theater and the arts have the potential to overcome the worst and most destructive parts of human nature, to unite instead of divide. To do so, to meaningfully constitute resistance, they must first resist the siren call of complacency, and ensure they are tearing down barriers to participation and not building new walls.