Theatre from the cracks in the psyche of culture

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Scream: June 2002

Are we at risk of degenerating into a theatre of smugness?

Few things repel as surely as smugness; that impenetrable shield that surrounds the body and psyche of someone consumed by certainty while hiding within his or her own limited sense of self-righteousness. When it is encountered on the stage, it is no less repelling and repugnant. Yet a growing characteristic in some areas of theatrical creation is an air of smugness and it leads to a whole theatre of smugness.

Theatre of smugness avoids the very basis of artistic expression and communication: ie. the vulnerability and willingness of artistic endeavour.

Vulnerability has no place for the certainty that comes with smugness. Willingness in the face of personal, social and cultural challenge requires courage and clear understanding of a role for art in society. Theatre is not simply a promotional tool for its creators. Nor is it simply a vehicle for egoistic vanity. Where it becomes either of these it degenerates into theatre of smugness.

And this smugness is a poison that can seep into all areas of artistic expression. It is akin to narcissism. It is all the more insidious because smugness prevents any form of personal insight. The perpetrator is being constantly deceived by his or her own reflection; the voices of flattery from an adulatory coterie of friends and colleagues; the bigness or worthiness of the cause to which the perpetrator is attached; and the feeling of being the only one with the true gift, knowledge or insight.

All of us can be guilty of it. It's sometimes a fine line between commitment to one's task or focus and being smug. Writers and directors particularly need to be aware of the symptoms: paranoia, pettiness, resistance to challenge, pickiness. All of this derives from vanity and misplaced ego. With a little humility and due homage to the very nature of our art form we can liberate ourselves from theatre of smugness.

Our work is bigger than us. Our art is drawn from somewhere indefinable that, if we are lucky, we may access. As artists, we are like hounds chasing the scent of a rabbit. But if we catch it and try to devour it, we are poisoned by its flesh. No art can ever be complete. Any such completeness is poisonous. The tension between: (1) the need for completeness and surety; and (2) the desire to find and discover, provides the starting point for our process. If we have not changed through this process, then we have evaded the most basic element of art.

Our responsibility is to follow the particular logic of our ideas and perceptions and to then discover the paradigms that rule us. This makes us humble. The moment we realize that everything we hold precious is culturally bound and limited by our experience we are freed to see the other person. We are also freed to see ourselves. And this, I believe, is the function of theatre.

On the other hand, if we decide that theatre is really just a tool for our agendas and propaganda, then it is being debased. Recent experiences of working on issues based theatre and seeing community groups attempting current social commentary lead me to question the motives of much that passes for art. Unless it is true to its own forms and authentically rooted within some unified contextual structure where all its elements are structurally integrated, the work is mere propaganda held captive to pre-conceived notions while being restricted to the ideology that drives the work.

At worst, we have Stalinist style over-blown poetics and heroic imagery that tells us what we must feel and believe. At best, we see naive presentations by people without the skill or willingness to find and distill the essence of what it is they are trying to create. In either case, the work presented merely uses theatrics to illustrate some predetermined idea ... and without really going into those dark and nebulous recesses where the ideas are baked and become fragile. As an audience we can see the falsity on the faces of the performers and feel it in their expressions and hear it in the forced nature of the dialogue, songs or recordings.

Of course there are many other areas of smugness outside issues based works. The lack of willingness to experiment and take risks in commercial theatre and even publicly funded theatre is a major source of smugness.

So where do we turn?

I suggest the answer is simple but deceptively difficult to implement. We need to keep re-inventing theatre's quest for live communion and immediacy. The balance of ritual, even spiritual and formal aspects of live presentation with the ephemeral and radical elements needs to be of the highest priority. I haven't seen this described anywhere more effectively than in Peter Brooke's The Empty Space where he contrasts what he terms Immediate Theatre with Deadly Theatre. Theatre of smugness reeks of the deadliness that Brook speaks of in The Empty Space.

Personally, I don't think our theatre as a whole will ever degenerate into theatre of smugness. Thankfully, it gets hounded out. Theatre's immediacy is its greatest asset. And thankfully there are many people involved in its creation and implementation for whom the journey of discovery is so very important as a value in and of itself. Creativity is the antidote to smugness. It is the vehicle through which we can travel beyond individual cultural boundaries and belief systems of all kinds. The creative imagination is something that became treasured as a creative tool some two hundred years ago with the advent of the romantic movement. It is the vital ingredient in a theatre of immediacy beyond personal vanity and smugness.

© Joe Woodward