What do you celebrate on World Theatre Day?
World Theatre Day was created by the International Theatre Institute (ITI) in 1962. It was announced as part of the ‘Theatre of Nations” season in Paris, and has been celebrated by the international theatre community each year ever since.
The day is marked by an annual message written by an esteemed member of the international theatre community, as well as one from each country, reflecting on the nature of theatre and global harmony.
On this day theatre makers are invited to come together as a community and reflect on the biggest question in the industry…
“Is theatre valid today?”
This is a question being passed through every rank of the theatre community, from students to professional companies, and from audience members to teachers.
As if theatre had become obsolete sometime between pay phones and train travel.
The only ones who seem sure of the answer are people who have never considered going to see theatre. Everyone else is a combination of assured belief in the magic of theatrical experiences and profound disappointment with much of the work being done.
The 2016 Theatre Day Message was written by Anatoli Vassiliev, acclaimed director and founder of the Moscow Theatre School of Dramatic Arts. In it, he writes,
“Do we need theatre?
That is the question thousands of professionals disappointed in theatre and millions of people who are tired of it are asking themselves.
What do we need it for?
In those years when the scene is so insignificant in comparison with the city squares and state lands, where the authentic tragedies of real life are being played.”
The question he asks was familiar to me. On my first day as a student in theatre school, the director of my program asked the same thing – “Is theatre valid still?”
Of course, as someone who had just made the big decision to do this for life, I answered “yes” but never stopped asking that question.
I looked for signs that I might unknowingly be studying a dead art. It’s hard to be sure when your instructors aren’t even sure… I decided that, if I was pursuing an extinct profession, I could always take my theatre training and become a decent wedding planner.
I haven’t had to use Plan B yet, and here’s my reflection on why.
Why is theatre so hard?
There must be a reason why so many people at all levels of theatre are asking themselves whether theatre is even worth making. It is normal for people to question how they live their life; and the occupation they chose. But to question whether the occupation itself has been made obsolete by Netflix, YouTube, and Pinterest…
The question about whether theatre is valid is like a lingering hurt from years of low audience number, late nights, exhausting labor, and loving attention that goes unnoticed. It’s a faint malaise of the spirit from weariness. Scar tissue that everyone in the industry carries somewhere in their soul.
I think any attempt to answer this question will be inherently unsatisfactory. Anatoli offers this for a solution.
“To hell with gadgets and computers – just go to the theatre, occupy whole rows in the stalls and in the galleries, listen to the word and look at living images!”
The question here becomes WHY?
Why does it matter if we come to look at real people ‘writhing about in a black box in curated blackness?’
Why should we get dressed and leave our house, shuffle past other people’s knees and over their coats to an uncomfortable seat, to watch a live performance when standing with your phone in the lobby offers equal (or sometimes greater) entertainment value than the show you paid to see?
Why does it matter?
Anatoli says theatre is important because it can tell us “everything.” My response is, “yes, but so can the internet…”
Reading this year’s theatre message I feel like a skeptic sitting at sermon. The words are inspiring, but only to those already convinced of the sacred qualities of the stage. It does little to convince those of us who are still questioning why we should make theatre of its value.
I think it is interesting that he compares theatre to modern media. How insignificant theatre is compared to the ‘theatre of the world’ that now lives in our phone…
Unlike Anatoli, I am hopeful for the potential of new technologies. The internet and wireless technology are shaping the culture of the world, and no conversation about theatre can be devoid of these influences.
The relationship between theatre and new tech is often viewed as an adversarial relationship, one of competition. How can a bunch of ‘writhing bodies in a black box’ compare with the world theatre being played in real time on our screens or to the infinity of films and TV available online?
For the first time in history we can follow events of interest in real time, be mentored directly by top professionals in our fields through blogs and tutorials, connect with passionate communities, and order nearly everything. Much of this for free.
‘Uncomfortable chairs in a dark room’ is looking like a poor option next to that offering.
But I don’t see theatre and new technology as being in opposition. As the social media manager at Imago, it’s my job to see how the two live together. New technology is part of our culture, and if theatre is going to survive, it needs to respond to that new culture.
Why Theatre (and books) Will Never Die
Have you ever tried to learn a complex set of skills online? Or find a comprehensive account of a news story or historical event?
The problem with the information that is available online is that it is mostly broken into fragments. If you were to try to learn a skill you would have to piece it together from YouTube tutorials and blog posts from a hundred other sources. Even then, you, as an amateur, would be unclear about which order to put them in.
When learning from information on the internet you are faced with disconnected skills and frustrating gaps of knowledge. The benefit of traditional mediums, like books, is that someone has already taken the time to curate the information into an easy-to-follow process.
I often feel overwhelmed by what is available online, even as someone who grew up with this resource. I read only a pinch of the hundreds of articles that appear on my Facebook and Twitter feeds, and it’s only enough to become aware of all the things that are wrong in the world, but not enough that I’ve made any sense of them. I could dig deeper, but to do so is to fall into an endless rabbit hole of links and information. It becomes hard to decide what is relevant information and what is irrelevant trivia.
This is where I think theatre can play an important role in today’s culture, by drawing on its unique strengths.
Theatre can provide a curated experience of the information we see daily, and go into it on a human level. Theatre makers are responsible for considering what is important in their community, and to craft an experience, however foreign, that holds relevance. Theatre is the local synthesis of the ‘international theatre’ we live in now. Theatre anchors us to home.
As a modern theatre-goer I look to theatre to present a human connection to the abstractions I read in my phone.
Theatre can respond to current events with more depth than a film and faster than book. Out of a culture of theatre makers watching the events of the world unfold on our screens, we are watching and asking questions about the events of the world, and responding in a way that can bring a community together to talk about those issues. The difference between journalism and theatre is that with theatre the audience is PART of the event. They feel for the event. And they feel it together as collective.
What theatre can do is give a community a vocabulary to talk about the things that are happening. “Like that character in that play about that event…” By making the abstract concrete, theatre can make it easier to discuss the reality.
Theatre also provides a human and emotional response to these abstract events. It’s hard to read a newspaper article about rape, murder, or genocide and feel a desire to act. As horrible as they are, the details in a news article don’t inspire the reader to take action. You may feel anger, but ultimately you don’t care… not until you have someone to care for.
Those advertisements about kids in third world countries who need support or food have that figured out – they know you need a face and a name before you will call the number and donate money to a cause.
Theatre doesn’t really offer anything on a global scale. Its reach is limited in terms of distribution. Unlike many other art forms, theatre is uniquely tied to a physical location.
It is important in nurturing local communities and keeping the focus on issues at home.
This is where the conversation becomes infinitely too large for the scope of this post.
How much do local communities matter in a globalist world?
How can we support them, and is it important?
You can find any community you want online, so what is the value of having people you can interact with in person?
To quote the World Theatre Message on more time;
“If you take a look at all the public arts, you can immediately see (w)hat only theatre is giving us – a word from mouth to mouth, a glance from eye to eye, a gesture from hand to hand, and from body to body- it is theatre in front of you, do not neglect it and do not miss a chance to participate in it – perhaps the most precious chance we share in our vain and hurried lives.”
The scope of this post is going far beyond what I am able to cover in one blog entry. It was really just supposed to be about World Theatre Day and how people can celebrate it…
So this is what I propose.
That we take this day to celebrate theatre for what it is, and to consider what purpose the theatre we make can have in our community.
Celebrate your art. Have some cake with your colleagues, and trust that you won’t need to be a wedding planner any time soon.
Happy World Theatre Day!
Here are some links if you are interested in more information about World Theatre Day and how to celebrate it.
PACT – Professional Association of Canadian Theatres compiled links to the World and Canadian Theatre Day Messages
The Greater Vancouver Professional Theatre Alliance put together a list of ways to celebrate World Theatre Day.