Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture

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Scream: September 2006

"No Well Made Play in Exposure of Fabricated Goddess"

The Shadow House PITS production of Naked Goddess certainly doesn't fit the bill as a "well made play". It actually threads smaller plays into a gallery of vignettes. Unpalatable as it may be for some, this is the future of theatre. The Aristotle view of what makes theatre has been co-opted by film and television. The costs for theatre to reproduce this in a professional 

and accessible manner has largely marginalized the well-made play to student presentations, amateur theatre societies and hugely subsidized companies. While Bell Shakespeare defies this trend, it can be argued that Shakespeare is a category of his own and that only a few of his plays fit the "well made" criterion anyway. But those who argue theatre's death should think again!


While many acting training institutions have abandoned specific training for the stage and opting instead to highlight work for the camera and the screen, the lower paid theatre artists suffer from self-consciousness brought on by their own training and the demands of patronizing funding bodies and structures. While funding bodies serve a function of advancing particular Government policies, the artistic function is paradoxical and either affirms or defies cultural and societal norms, values and what is currently in vogue.

Artists make specific choices about what subjects they will attempt. The basis for these choices is contentious. Serious considerations of culture, religion and politics are found mostly lacking in Australian theatre! The post modern tendencies in theatrical choice making are inadequate for formulating works that draw upon the competing attitudes, aspirations and entrenched world views held by huge majorities of the world population. That such competition among world views has led to irrational death wishes in the form of Islamic terrorism and whole scale slaughter instigated by Western technologies has hardly found any expression on our stages.

Have we really progressed from the 1968 work of Alex Buzo with his Norm And Ahmed? The play deconstructed aspects of the Australian male psyche. But then it also ignored the contradictions within Ahmed and any attempt at seeking his equivalence of Norm (as if there weren't any). It is a romantic concept that suggests other cultures are squeaky clean while ours is maggotted with a corrupt psyche. The condescension is unintended. However, more than thirty years later our theatre has rarely taken up the challenge of journeying into the very psyche of culture and its shadow.

Indeed theatre by "market research" stresses the need for supplying audiences with micro-cultural affirmations that secure them in their embedded preconceptions. In a fragmented post-modern world, our audiences are not one entity but diverse groupings categorized for marketing purposes into demographic clusters. The would-be writer is told to study his / her likely audience so that the work can find a niche. Mastery of such thinking enables funding bodies to target suitable beneficiaries. After all it doesn't suit government agencies to be seen dishing out dollars where there is no obvious audience affirmation. So we find theatre for youth, theatre for migrants, theatre for women, theatre for men, theatre of protest, theatre for the mainstream (eg. well-off educated elites who like the reassurance of seeing their pet subjects extolled on expensive stages) etc. While there is nothing inherently wrong with any of this, we need to acknowledge that it is not the whole truth nor is it the only truth or methodology or ambit for the creation and presentation of theatre. It isn't the only means for accessing theatrical form or processes.

The big advantage of theatre is its immediacy; its ephemeral nature that lives and dies within its own moment of existence. It means we have to face our accusers or our judges or our enquirers at the point of our dialogue. There is no escape. Our lies, half truths, strengths and weaknesses as people, our skills and commitment, our willingness to advocate and denounce, our setting up of patterns for scrutiny, our revealing of weaknesses in these patterns, our doubts as artists and communicators, our daring and temerity in standing before our fellow human beings and holding up something for scrutiny all need to be acknowledged and accepted as our sacrifice and necessity. It needs to be a humbling, engaging and paradoxically illuminating experience for both participants and audience.

This is what gives the theatrical form its binding tension; even more so than the literary structural tensions that arise from the sequencing and weighting of events within a dramatic context. This echoes Brecht:

"We need a type of theatre which not only releases the feelings, insights and impulses possible within the particular historical field of human relations in which the action takes place, but employs and encourages those thoughts and feelings which help transform the field itself."

Bertolt Brecht (1898-1956), In Brecht on Theatre, ed. and trans. by John Willett (1964). "A Short Organum for the Theatre," para. 35 (1949).

This is not to suggest we throw out any concept of unity or structure in a theatrical work. What it does suggest is a three dimensional structural analysis of a theatrical work rather than simply a two dimensional linear structure. In other words, a unity may be achieved by the relationship between the performer and the content or by the relationship between a weighted image or series of images and content while considering the numinous relationship between all of these and the audience within a particular cultural / historical setting.

Theatre can be most exciting when images or clusters of content (be they stories, characterizations, sound/visuals, etc.) are pitted against each other. The overall meaning of the work is not limited to the peculiarities of any single cluster but in the actual dynamics that link them. This suggests a kind of relativism in theatre that allows for cultural challenge and a stirring of possibly annoying feelings that seek resolution.

Such a theatre is not one of affirmation of particular cultural groupings. While it may appeal to certain sensibilities over others, it is designed to feed the participating individuals with food for thought. The essential requirement is that all involved, participants and audience members, be open and even ravenous for thought and stimuli for the imagination. This is not so difficult. The human spirit is an enquiring entity. It is curious. It is open for fascination. It seeks engagement. The live theatre experience can be a source of nourishment.

Probably the best example of this kind of approach in Australian theatre is from  version 1.0 (Version One Point Zero). Their use of juxtaposition of image along with a strong social / cultural / historical referencing creates a theatre experience beyond simple protest or affirmation of a single world view or cultural grouping. They use juxtaposition of image and content in a masterfully theatrical way that allows engagement from all sections of the political personality. The group uses three dimensional structures that are specific to the stage. While incorporating film and video, the tensions created by the theatrical devices themselves transcend any requirement for  a "well made play".

This kind of theatre is almost akin to a secular ceremony involving ritualized action compounded with documented factual content. Not that it needs factual content! The use of metaphors can achieve a similar aim. It tries to draw to the forefront of consciousness those aspects of social / historical / cultural experience that are hidden or obscured within the clutter of civilization, media spin and complex social interactions. This is one of the key traditions of artistic creation.

Shadow House PITS and the Naked Goddess

Shadow House PITS' production of Naked Goddess makes no attempt at the well made play structure. Rather it is an amalgam of shorter works that could be self contained within themselves. But together they provide clusters of content pitted against each other to hopefully provide a unified work. We are attempting to achieve this through the creation of a gallery of digital photography and a continuation of the style into video animations of moving objects and figures on to the intimate stage and the rear wall. Each character is deliberately isolated from each other; making them fractured and lonely objects; real lives that become another's art.

But the key to this work is in the setting of each character against a back drop of cultural clash; the brittle nature of belief; and the vulnerability of human nature and our existence in a social order. How do dreams, illusions, desires, early experiences mesh with our respective interactions with society? The underpinning violence of the individual becomes reflected in the wider cosmos. A simple letter from a mother pleading that her son doesn't experience the horrors of her war time experience exposes the crimes being perpetrated against humanity. And these things are known to all of us beneath the thick layers of our designated beliefs.

Joe Woodward
(Sept. 2006)

 



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