Daily Dojo

Three Things To Rule Us All . . .

Not that I WANT to add to the Edward Albee furor that has almost flamed out over the web, which if you’re unfamiliar with, you can update here and here . . . I left a few comments at various places and then had to fly out west . . . there were many things said that I just disagreed with and left it at that.

But I couldn’t help but respond to one comment I read.

Over at theatrenotes an actor left a flowery comment regarding the Edward Albee fuss which he ended as thus:

Life also penetrates the actor, and life has more rites than just theatre to formalise the actor’s search. It is perhaps just that theatre comes closest. An actor may end up with available breath. A playwright may end up with a play. A playwright may paint still-lifes. An actor may read poetry. If there is no writer, there is no empty chair in the rehearsal room. If there is an absence of language, the stage is not empty. There was never a total art, and the works through time that change us rarely aspire to end the conversation there and then.

Very well-written, this comment is, as Yoda would say . . . though I might bridle at the suggestion that life penetrates the actor but not the playwright, who is trapped in still-life, but instead of bridling, I thought I’d examine what he says more closely . . .

The actor and also author of the above comment basically maintains that even without words, as long as there’s an actor on the stage, it’s not empty . . . therefore, the actor is the most important part of any performance. Not the playwright. Not the words. He doesn’t say that words or writing or the playwright is unimportant, just that . . . well, without them, it’s not empty. Without the actor . . . the performance is empty.

An elegant argument. But unfortunately, in my opinion, it’s somewhat wrong.

How so?

Okay, I’m just going to riff on the subject for awhile, so bear with me . . .

Ask yourself, what does one NEED to do a play or performance / theatrical event?

A stage?

No.

One can, and many have, put up plays in many places, parks, parking lots and even bathrooms (back in my younger days, I acted in a play set in an actual bathroom).

So you don’t need a stage.

Do you need lights?

Nope. I’ve got a couple plays myself that are explicitly set in utter darkness (THE RACE, it’s in my Library check it out).

Do you need a director?

No.

I believe it helps, but there are plays staged everywhere without direction . . . actors get together and make it happen on their own.

Don’t get me wrong, I am a great believer in the addition of a good director, but the simple fact of the matter is, one doesn’t need a director to have a play done.

Perhaps you need one to have it done very well . . . but the question isn’t one of quality, but rather, one of fullness or emptyness . . . right?

On that scale . . . we could do a play without a director.

Do you need actors?

No.

Now, don’t get me wrong . . . actors are important, depending on the play . . . ALL OF MY PLAYS NEED ACTORS. . . My friends are actors, I used to be an actor . . . I love actors, I value actors and I especially value TALENTED ACTORS.

But the truth of the matter is, when you think about it, that we could do a play without actors.

We could, we could set it up with Barbie dolls and title cards flashed on a blank wall like a silent movie. . . no live actors, no actor voices . . . all done with words and images . . . we could do a play like that (and actually, I remember watching some puppet theatre back in my No Shame Theatre days which achieved just that!) that did not have actors.

We could do a play with live frogs . . . or fleas . . . we could create something like that. THEODORA SKIPITARES creates shows with puppets and found documentary text.

So the aforementioned elegant comment by the actor that, without the actor, the space is empty, is simply not true.

We can fill a theatre space without an actor.

Now here’s where it gets interesting:

Do you need a script?

No.

Got that?

You don’t need a script to stage a performance . . . yes, that’s true, a playwright JUST told you that a SCRIPT is not necessary for a fulfilling theatrical event.

Not any more or less than anything else mentioned previous . . . okay? Just so we’re clear?

So what DOES one need in order for a theatre event NOT to be empty?

Three things:

In my opinion, the necessary elements for a performance breaks down like this, really, to this equation . . .

SOMEONE gives SOMETHING to SOMEBODY.

I cannot think of any performance, either read or unread, live or dead, that doesn’t have the above equation . . . again, this is all only my opinion . . . but those three things are what makes it happen . . . this is just my goofy equation and obviously, for purposes of this argument, I’ve REALLY generalized those three things to begin our understanding . . . SOMEONE, SOMETHING, SOMEBODY, three very generalized words . . . so let’s get more specific on WHAT those three things are are, exactly . . .

The three things are, in essence . . .

One:

First and foremost:

AN AUDIENCE

Most important part of any performance is THE AUDIENCE.

Because that’s who the story / experience / information that we call a play and / or performance event is given to.

Therefore, in the equation SOMEONE gives SOMETHING to SOMEBODY . . . The audience is THE SOMEBODY. They are the recipient.

The most important ROLE in any theatre production is the role the AUDIENCE plays.

Without an audience, you don’t have a performance. You don’t have a play, you don’t have an opera or a musical or a dance recital . . . the audience is the most necessary element in theatre, because without them, there is no one to GIVE anything to.

The second most necessary thing is:

A STORY

In other words, that which is given.

The story is THE SOMETHING that is given to the audience . . .

Now I know what you’re thinking . . . you’re thinking . . . wait a minute . . . you just said we didn’t need a SCRIPT, that a script isn’t necessary for a performance or play or theatre event, didn’t you?

I did.

But one DOESN’T need a script to tell a story.

Stories can be told in many ways . . . they can be made up on the spot, they can be meticulously metered out on paper in iambic pentameter over years with a quill pen, they can be told with interpretive dance or champion belching . . . there are MANY ways to tell a story.

Stories aren’t even limited only to words, or even clarity . . . they can be confusing or simple or complex . . . they can be anything . . . it can be done with words, without words, with puppets, it can change every night or it can never change.

The story is the message / experience / information that’s being delivered to the audience.

The experience of the giving, which must contain action and not necessarily anything else. The story is the experience SHARED with the audience.

Stories can be ANYTHING. Really . . . stories can be done all with light and no words, all with words and no light. With actors, without actors. With music. In silence with nothing but movement.

The story is the specific experience given to the audience. It may be Cinderella, it may be nothing, like composer John Cage’s 4′33″, which is four and a half minutes of total silence.

That experience, whatever it may be and however it may be delivered, is what I would call THE STORY.

It may be a good story. It may be a bad story. Again, we’re not talking about quality but rather trying to quantify it . . . what is given is what I call THE STORY . . . . It may be clear or unclear, but it’s the second thing necessary, in my opinion, for a performance event. Something deliberately given to an audience, either with actors and lights or without it, and that something I call story.

If you put actors in front of an audience and they do nothing . . . they share nothing, they make no moves or express nothing . . . then you have nothing . . .

The story is the experience SHARED with the audience. Without it, you have empty space.

Now I know an actor out there may be reading this, thinking to themselves, “But I could just stand there and move the audience . . . I’ve done it before, I could move them using only my eyes . . . I could do something and fill the moments . . . make it special . . . If I stood there without a story, I could fill the space.”

I can hear something thinking that. And I agree . . . you could, except the moment you chose to share something with the audience, standing before them, you are no longer just an actor . . . you are now AN AUTHOR . . .

Which is the third necessary thing . . .

AN AUTHOR

Now, by author, I don’t necessarily mean playwright, though playwrights are also authors . . . by author, I mean the person or persons who have decided, either far in advance or on the spur of the moment, WHAT to GIVE the audience . . .

The ORIGINATOR of the story . . . without whom, it would have never happened.

They are the SOMEONE in SOMEONE gives SOMETHING to SOMEBODY.

Somebody sat down and said, “Hmm. What about a guy, a Prince, who is driven mad by the fact his uncle killed his father and then married his mother?”

That’s an author. The above author used words and ideas to communicate it, but it began with HIM.

When Martha Graham, on the other hand, decided to share something, she used movement so communicate it.

The idea of what to SHARE with the audience began with THEM . . . so THEY are the authors. An author can be one person or it can be a group of people.

Just to be clear . . . the actors, the stage, the props and lights and fog machines and WORDS . . . these are all tools which help deliver the package, THE STORY to THE AUDIENCE . . . but it CAN be delivered without them.

The director oversees the delivery of the package to its recipient, THE AUDIENCE. But it can be delivered without a director.

It helps, you bet, but scripted shows are also better than improvised shows almost always, in my opinion. But we are not discussing subjective quality, just pointing out necessary realities . . .

The director, actors, designers, all very important people . . . the GIVE part of the equation is important, too.

One needs a method of delivery . . . but as I pointed out earlier . . . the theatrical event, or story, can be GIVEN without ANY of the aformentioned components . . . just like a story can LIVE without words, it can also live without actors, a director, a stage or lights and costumes.

It can happen.

But it never happens without an author, a story, or an audience.

So those are the three necessary things that rule theatre, in my mind.

I’ve worked with Anne Bogart, actually she brought me to New York City, and I can tell you that she decides what story to tell and how she wants to tell it. She’s not a writer, but she’s definitely an author. The specific theatrical event would not exist without her.

On the other hand, you could replace the actors, the costumes and lights, change them and the event would still very much be an identifiable product of Author Anne Bogart.

And an Edward Albee play is an Edward Albee play pretty much no matter who directs it or who acts in it. Sometimes it’s delivered REALLY well and sometimes it’s not. But we are not talking about quality, but rather the quantitive substance of the material.

I maintain we could stage an Albee play with Barbie dolls and title cards and it would still be Albee.

He probably wouldn’t like that, though, and I wouldn’t blame him. Why? Because as AUTHOR, he had a vision for how he wanted his story delivered to the audience . . . it’s written into it . . . it’s in the DNA of the theatrical experience.

Martha, in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? is a woman of very specific age and character for a reason. To cast a twenty-two year old hot model would do a disservice to the STORY’S intent. It wouldn’t be Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? any longer if you did that. It would be some other play with the same name.

This is why the GIVE section in my equation is not highlighted separately.

Why?

Because it’s part and parcel of THE STORY. How the story is created and designed dictates how it is to be given. The story is the experience SHARED with the audience.

A play with four characters does not need fourteen actors. John Cage’s 4′33″ does not need an orchestra and adding one would only be a disservice to the intent of what is to be shared with the audience.

Likewise, staging Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? with Barbie Dolls is not the story that was meant to be told.

Much of this Albee debate has to do with whether or not the people who GIVE the work to an audience are making a creative input to the work . . . of course they are, but that’s part of the job description, right? Simply just delivering it is a creative act.

Most, if not all, of this argument is basically over the BEST way to deliver the product to the audience. And you know what? Those are fun arguments to have.

The problem is when such creative folk seek to change and adapt what they’re GIVING to their own purposes . . . changing the author’s story into their own story, so to speak. But, that’s not what they’re there for. They’re there to deliver the story, not originate or alter.

A big problem is when it’s done against the wishes of the author. When they take action outside of their job descriptions.

An actor can make up fun new lines on the spot, you bet, but is that really the actors job in an Albee play? Isn’t that less an creative act and more of a destructive one?

How is that different from a director changing the intent of a play or story without the author’s permission?

Isn’t that a problem? I think so.

The bigger problem is when someone such as Edward Albee is dismissed as an authority on how his OWN PLAY should be delivered.

And while I’m not at Albee’s level, not even close, I can certainly emphasize.

I myself have had my work altered and cut without my permission, even on professional levels.

I’ve had it staged without my permission.

I’ve had people take a piece I wrote and stage it WITH THEIR OWN NAME as author, instead of mine, which is of course, a crime.

I’ve had it rewritten by someone else to the point it was unrecognizable and had my name still attached to the mess that was left.

I’ve had people do untold number of horrendous things, all in the name of making the delivery better but in reality making it worse, I’ve had directors cut me out of the creative equation and then calling that “collaboration”.

I’ve also worked hand-in-hand with creative directors who helped me find the best way to deliver my story to its intended audience.

I’ve had wonderful and great experiences with great directors and great actors. They were great because we all knew what jobs we had, what our responsibilities were to the audience. Nobody pretended to be the playwright and I didn’t pretend to be anything other than what I was.

We shared the work of delivering the story in the best possibly way.

That’s collaboration.

What has this whole debate been about? Hasn’t it been about the importance of the playwright, which seems to lessen every year? I mean, are we really caught up in a debate where a writer who has won three Pulizters for playwrighting is ridiculed for his beliefs that he knows what’s best for his work, knows better than anyone else?

Don’t get me wrong . . . actors, directors, designers . . . they are all creative people. Everyone is, I know creative clerks and short-order cooks, creative mechanics and creative baby-sitters. The very act of living and breathing is a creative act.

But there’s a difference between simply being creative and being an author. I’ve given creative feedback on many a new play, acted as dramaturg on pieces for fellow writers and have been told that my critique and suggestions have made whomever’s work that much better.

But simply because I did that DOESN’T make me the author of the play I critiqued. The author is the person who wrote the play, not the person who responded or delivered it.

Me, I was simply responding as one who also delivers in addition to originates.

It’s a fluid three-way street, in a way. If the author of a play notices the audience responds a certain moment during previews and he makes changes to amplify that moment, does that make the audience the author?

No. They’re simply doing their job, responding as an audience. The author does his / her job, refining the story to get it closer to whatever he / she wishes it to be.

I value actors and directors greatly. I’ve done their jobs, I know how hard it is. Hell, I value all the people who choose to work in theatre, from stage-managers onward.

I’ve done every job in theatre that you can probably name, some I’ve done well (lighting designer) and some (like sewing costumes) not so well. They’re all valuable, creative jobs.

But they wouldn’t exist without authors giving stories to audiences. Not a single one of them.

So I guess I politely take issue with the above actor who states, and does so very well, that the room isn’t empty without a playwright but empty without an actor to fill it. Not true.

This is just my tiny opinion, of course, as the author of this post. But it is what I believe.

Without authors, without story, without audience, everything would be empty.

Those Three Things Rule Us All . . .

7 Responses to “ Three Things To Rule Us All . . .”

  1. dan Says:

    Joshua

    “though I might bridle at the suggestion that life penetrates the actor but not the playwright, who is trapped in still-life…”

    Although I confess my post was perhaps generalised, I don’t see how I suggest that life doesn’t enter the playwright. Nor do I suggest that the theatre only requires actors. In fact the idea of actors on stage without a ‘unity of purpose’ fills me with the kind of dread I can only equate to the hysteria encouraged by some acting workshops. As Daniel Keene sternly reminded me once : Soccer players without teams, rules, goals, or the all-important white line – who wants to show up to that?

    As Alison said in her response, these issues defy generalisation. One distinction might be between authorship and authority. You seem to feel the need to reinforce the authority of the playwright, over actors, directors, even painters(!), but are playwrights exiled from a moment, or actors from literature? Is authority the point at all? For all the concreteness of the written play, can it not also be momentary, unpredictably flare in the present, and does not the actors work also pertain to memory?

    What happens in the theatre only happens once, this is perhaps the seed of its humanity. Theatre is authored by the creators and the audience. Although I take issue with the flippancy of your Things That Go Without Saying:

    “Everyone is, I know creative clerks and short-order cooks, creative mechanics and creative baby-sitters. The very act of living and breathing is a creative act.”

    it could be argued that you substitute theatre’s participants every night. (The central task for me as a performer is considering how to meet our production each night, when I am a different person each day)

    I had the privilege of working with with Anne Bogart in an all too brief workshop, when she toured Death of a Ploughman to Melbourne. The things which stuck with me were her notion of ‘fuck you Anne’, a spirit she encouraged in performers, and to grossly abbreviate, her paring back of performer’s personal desires to meet the challenges of her deceptively simple tasks.

    It was a workshop (not a hysterical one) that revealed a work method. As Simone Weil wrote “Work method based on analogy? Because then one has always to rethink.” Rethinking is akin to recognising and this is the charge of the actor, the audience and the playwright. Perhaps the emergence of recognition (expression?) happens at different times for each, but another kind of newness is born when these participants agree to meet at an agreed time in a particular place.

    If the authority of any participant breeds reverence in the theatre, I think it is deadly. Hence language as muscle, or weapon not artefact. We must all rethink. Or perhaps I’m just generalising again?

    Dan

  2. Joshua James Says:

    “You seem to feel
    the need to reinforce the authority of the playwright,”

    I believe that I was clear in that the authority of the author (originator) of the work has been undermined . . . sometimes the author is a playwright, sometimes the author is not a playwright.

    so take that for what it is.

    Anne has the last say on what stays in the production and what goes . . . she creates an environment in which everyone is encouraged to contribute tools, fresh from her menu, and she picks from what’s given. She’s an author, by my definition. Just not one who writes, but one who directs.

    And your comment - “If there is no writer, there is no empty chair in the rehearsal room. If there is an absence of language, the stage is not empty” was fairly clear and my response fairly clear in return.

    And I like to think I responded respectfully as well . . . I merely tried to break everything down to it’s very base, very necessary parts in my goofy way, and defines everyone’s roles within . . .

  3. dan Says:

    Joshua,

    Firstly, I want to clarify that I was very grateful for your examination of the ideas in my post. Having to think about your several points helped me think and in fact to clarify for myself some of the slippery areas of this discussion.

    I didn’t mean to infer (if that’s in fact what you felt) that you were disrespectful, and although I felt that you misunderstood some of what I had written, and had taken these errant points as a launching platform, I also realised that in the blogsphere, strangers may miss the codes that underly some comments. I am new to this arena, and wrote what I think was a kind of love letter, in its own way goofy, “flowery” perhaps, but for what its worth, carefully weighed.

    I have (very fortunately) worked on little else than the work of wonderful playwrights, playwrights who are interested in many facets of language. I was perhaps addressing my own conservatism by stating that if there is no playwright there is no empty chair… I was also answering Albees provocative call. But by no means seeking to devalue the presence of the playwright in the theatre, or to say that the only kind of author is a playwright.

    When confronted by the work of Romeo Castelluci, who uses ‘non-actors’ and is interested, I think, in a museum, a space where language is exiled, and gesture, image and sound are intensified, I rebelled. Through discussions on theatrenotes and her many links and hyperlinks, and eslewhere, I came to appreciate the terrible beauty of this space. I have not worked in this way, and although I now understand it as an audience member, I still don’t know how I would respond as an actor.

    Nevertheless…

  4. Joshua James Says:

    I understood your points, and commented many times that they were well writ . . .

    “I was perhaps addressing my own conservatism by stating that if there is no playwright there is no empty chair… I was also answering Albees provocative call. But by no means seeking to devalue the presence of the playwright in the theatre, or to say that the only kind of author is a playwright.”

    But the no playwright, no empty chair comment is a bit tough, don’t you think? And untrue, in a sense . . . because if the playwright is author and the author had not written the play, the room would be empty no matter how many actors were in it.

    I was clear that the playwright isn’t the ONLY kind of author of story in theatre . . . there are many differing kinds . . . in fact, I make the case that anyone CAN be an author, actually . . . but it’s a different job than the other facets of theatre . . .

    And I merely pointed out that the author is key, and if you decide to do a playwright’s play, the role of the playwright as author should be valued accordingly . . .

  5. James Says:

    “…we could set it up with Barbie dolls and title cards flashed on a blank wall like a silent movie…”

    Seriously? If you did that, I’d be the first in line to watch that. I’m not kidding.

  6. isaac Says:

    Great stuff, Josh.

    On one note, however, I think I beg to differ– adding an orchaestra to Cage’s 4′33″ would just amplify the mischevious wit of the piece, and actually may help to bring it even closer to what Cage intended. It’s supposed to be “performed” in its silent-ness. In many iterations of it, the pianist is supposed to lift the cover of the keys before each of its three movements and then replace said cover at the end. It has a score (it actually has three different versions of its score) etc. etc. and so forth.

    Having an orchaestra who picked up their instruments, did nothing for 2ish minutes, set them down and then did it again twice would actually be completely keeping in line with what Cage was doing with the piece.

    A minor quibble, I just thought you might like to know!

  7. Joshua James Says:

    Good point, Isaac, you are exactly right . . . perhaps a better metaphor is deciding to put in random cymbal crashes to “emphasize” the silence Cage intended.

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