Saturday, March 9, 2013

Theatre For Thought, March 9, 2013

by Joel Fishbane

In a recent article on, tech writer Samuel Abramson reports the following anecdote: His professor read a paper that invalidated what he had taught in class the day before. The next time he went into the class, he said: “Remember what I told you on Tuesday? It’s wrong. And if that worries you, you need to get out of science.” Abramson went on to add that “science is always in draft form”. In other words, it’s an ever expanding frontier.

Theatre too has long been an artform that’s always being rewritten; newer forms of theatre are continually invalidating those that came before. Theatre is vastly different today than what it was in ancient Greece or Shakespeare’s England. Once upon a time, actors received only their parts and entered a performance without any blocking or rehearsal. Today, such a practice is generally a novelty - such as with Toronto’s Shakespeare in the Ruff’s recent fundraiser  in which they used the "parts system"  to perform Henry VI, Part III.

Part of our recent evolution has included the appearance of storytelling events on the theatrical landscape - New York has The Moth, Montreal has Confabulation and Toronto has Raconteurs. These events are a far cry from traditional theatre – storytellers tell true stories, live and without notes, and the performance generally involves no sets, costumes or other design elements. A variation of this has been seen in the successful shows produced by Carrie Fisher (Wishful Drinking) and Anthony Rapp (Without You). Based on their memoirs, these are one person shows that take the essence of the Moth or Confabulation – the stories are, after all, true – but add that dollop of theatricality (multimedia, songs, lighting etc.).  

With or without the more traditional elements in this place, these evenings of storytelling remain brazenly theatrical and return us to the essence of what theatre is. All theatre is live storytelling and whether that story is true or fictional, told by a single person or a motley crew of artists, the principle remains the same.

Equally intriguing – or frustrating, depending on your outlook - is the synergy that is happening between theatre and other artistic mediums. Recent remounts of The Wizard of Oz and 2008’s The Sound of Music were linked to reality shows while Veda Hille and Bill Richardson’s A Craigslist Cantata (which appeared in Toronto and Vancouver) used the online classifieds as its source material. Numerous shows have appeared based on familiar movies (Legally Blond, High Fidelity, The Graduate) or the songbooks of legendary artists (Mamma Mia, Jersey Boys etc.). Hot on the heels of the success of the movie version of Les Misérables, it’s theatrical version is returning to Toronto. Meanwhile, an original cast recording of Bombshell recently hit the shelves – notable because Bombshell is the fictional musical being created on the TV show Smash. (If Bombshell doesn’t arrive on the real Broadway sometime in the next ten years, I’ll eat my hat.)

Characters from one theatrical world are also beginning to appear in others – such as Wicked, which takes characters from The Wizard of Oz, Peter and the Starcatchers, which takes characters from Peter Pan, or Clybourne Park, which borrows minor characters from Lorraine Hainsbury’s famous play, A Raisin in the Sun. This is more then the theatrical tradition of adapting familiar stories; it is storytelling that assumes its audience has knowledge of a completely exterior narrative. 

As a playwright, I’m all too familiar with the process of rewrites and it’s intriguing to consider that the medium I write for is also continually being changed. It seems to reveal one of the greatest risks of the artistic life. Given the great length of time it takes to mount a show, it’s possible that a show that’s ahead of its time on Tuesday is woefully passé two days later. I suppose I can only tell myself what Mr. Abramson’s professor said that fateful day: if this worries me, I’d better get out of the theatre. 

Noticed other ways theatre has continued to evolve? Comment below!

1 comment:

  1. Every time I see a play, no matter how brilliant the script and reputedly excellent the actors, I'm always struck by the fact that, most often, the story doesn't succeed in transfiguring me. And this, being transfigured, was the reason I came the play in the first place. The characters always at best seem phony or at worst thoroughly uninteresting. I don't really know why this is, but I suspect that it's because the actors don't really sense the truth of the character themselves. If you can't sense this truth, it is impossible to convey it, and much less transfigure the audience. Have we lost the idea and eve more so the capacity for sensing the truth? Especially, since truth, as can be deduced from the article, is ever changing. Could it be that, instead of always trying to find new theatrical forms, the focus would be more fruitful if it centred on trying to revive or find new forms of truth?


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