David’s Corner

March 24 – Towards a Poor Theatre, or rather, Having Arrived at a Poor Theatre, or “Jimmy, put your shoes on, we’re at a Poor Theatre.”

I’m sure you gathered from Kate’s review that we thoroughly enjoyed Bat Boy: The Musical! (I added an exclamation point for effect). At one point I almost fell out of my chair, which would have been hilarious. It would also have been dreadful because I would have fallen on Bat Boy, who was standing next to the riser at the time.

But beyond that, the production exhibited, and helped me to articulate, a thought that’s been brewing in my mind. My own little corner of the blog may be too small to connect a production of Bat Boy: The Musical to Jerzy Grotowski’s Towards a Poor Theatre, but since what I have to say involves such limiting factors, it may be exactly right. That said, forgive me if this all doesn’t quite tie together. I only have a corner, after all.

Some context- I spent a semester of graduate school in what was effectively an abbreviated Grotowski laboratory, under the tutelage of Eric Forsythe, a former student of Grotowski’s and one of the head faculty at the University of Iowa. That was just shy of four years ago, I think, and I’ve been revisiting the experience by reading up anything about and by Jerzy Grotwoski, notably Towards a Poor Theatre, and some associated articles and interviews conducted shortly after its first publication, and An Acrobat of the Heart, Steven Wangh’s recent text on his “physical approach to acting inspired by the work of Jerzy Grotowski.”

So I’ve had “poor theatre” on the brain. Also there’s that whole thing where professional theatre companies all over the country are closing their doors, public and private funding for the arts seems to be at an all time low, and morale in the theatre world regarding its current financial situation is, well… shitty? Can I say that on the blog, Kate? OK, let’s just say the beatings have continued but, strangely, morale has yet to improve.

Going into Whistling the Dark’s green space and reading their manifesto, which was charmingly displayed on crinkled sheets handwritten in little frames behind the box office, I was struck by two thoughts. The first was, “Remember that scene in Citizen Kane when Joseph Cotton mails Orson Welles their old declaration of principles and it’s all torn up and stuff?… Yeah…that was awesome….” And the second was, “Wow, this isn’t too far off from what Grotwoski was talking about.” In Towards a Poor Theatre he addresses a conundrum that has only grown more troublesome with time; competition with television and film.

“…the Rich Theatre tries to escape the impasse presented by movies and television. Since film and TV excel in the area of mechanical functions (montage, instantaneous change of place, etc.), the Rich Theatre countered with a blatantly compensatory call for ‘total theatre.’ The integration of borrowed mechanisms (movie screens onstage, for example) means a sophisticated technical plant, permitting great mobility and dynamism. And if the stage and/or auditorium were mobile, constantly changing perspective would be possible. This is all nonsense.” –Jerzy Grotwoski, Towards a Poor Theatre, 1965

He goes on to assert that “No matter how much theatre expands and exploits its mechanical resources, it will remain technologically inferior to film and television. Consequently, I propose poverty in theatre.” (My italics. Mine, all mine….) Check out the article, if you want to learn more about why he thinks that’s a good idea. Or better, yet, find a class. Or if you’ve studied Grotowski, call me! Let’s get together and jam sometime, man!

Look, I wish we had more money. I support public funding for the arts, not just selfishly but because I’ve seen firsthand the myriad ways in which a strong artistic presence can help our communities thrive. I’ve also seen plenty of heavily technical theatre that I thought was flat out awesome (No, shut up, I haven’t seen Wicked, but I did see a production where a whole set rose up out of the floor at rotated to face us. Righteous. Also, shut up.). That said, most of us can’t really afford to put technically amazing things on stage these days. And we’re sad about that. It’s easy to get down about it, but I propose that it’s comforting to know that by participating in a theatre that is poor out of necessity, we are also participating in part of the evolution of the craft. It’s exciting that this conversation has been happening long before we got here, and Grotowski’s physical approach to theatre is just one example of the tremendous history we have to draw on as “poor theatre artists.”

Now obviously a key difference is that The Whistlers (I call them that now) have not voluntarily chosen or proposed poverty like Grotowski claims to have done. Rather, I would assume, poverty has been thrust upon ‘em, just like it has on the rest of us. However, The Whistlers have explicitly chosen to avoid “the inherent waste in most theatrical creation.” They’re basically challenging themselves to do more with less and “[attempt] environmental sustainability as we approach fiscal sustainability.”

My hat is off to The Whistlers for, consciously or otherwise, incorporating the work of a decidedly “out-there” theatre teacher into a commercial model and making it work. At least it worked for me on little Sunday afternoon. And why should it stop there? Let’s not apologize for working in a poor theatre. We don’t have to. I know that some audiences might walk away from Bat Boy and say, “Wow that was really good even though there wasn’t much of a set, or any mind-blowing light effects.” But I walked saying, “That was awesome because there wasn’t much of a set or any mind-blowing light effects!”

Poverty allowed the sweat, tears, actions, voices and emotions of the performers in Bat Boy to dominate the moment. Yes, read that again. A production of a play called Bat Boy: The Musical has inspired the sort of praise you’d expect to hear from folks leaving a Eugene O’Neil play, and a comparison to a highly regarded experimental theatre movement from the 1960s.  Sounds nutty, but I think it’s deserved.

Our poverty may be a setback, but it can also be an asset if, like The Whistlers, we approach it as such. I know this might not be a new or particularly profound thought, but it’s certainly put a little more gas in my creative engines. Hopefully it does the same for you.

Also, guys? If “The Whistlers” suddenly becomes the abbreviated and catchy new name of your company, I will get paid. Right?

March 15 – Inaugural Address

My inaugural entry concerns the age old question with which every twenty-something theatre artist eventually dabbles. Well, by “age old” I suppose I mean post-Steppenwolf, but as usual I digress. Said question usually goes something like, “What if I got together with my friends and started my own theatre company?” There’s obvious appeal to the idea. We are all sick of the customary audition-wait-audition-wait-audition-callback-wait-wait-wait-rejection-audition-wait-aretheyevergettingbacktome routine. We know that in order to succeed we need make our own opportunities as artists and take control of our own careers, rather than letting others control it for us. If I were to start my own theatre company, I would be my own boss. If nobody else will cast me as Viola in an all male, 1980s-themed production of Twelfth Night then, by God, I’ll do it myself!

Thusly goes the dabbling. The many people who have started their own theatre companies here in Columbus would tell me, “Uh, there’s a little more to it than that…” and rightly so. As it turns out, a great many people would be telling me that in Columbus, which we have found to be swamped with theatre companies. I think going into our move here, we knew of CATCO, Columbus Children’s, Available Light, MadLab, and Actors’ Theatre. Growing up in Cincinnati, I was aware of Shadowbox, since they’re also in Newport down that way. There was also something called Rosebriar Shakespeare, and it had a website that popped up when one googled “Columbus theatre,” but which has apparently gone all lost colony of Roanoke on us. Compared to Iowa, that seemed like quite a bit of theatre happening. Now every time I turn around, there’s another one! They’re focusing on new work, or focusing on a more diverse theatre environment, or focusing on….well frankly, it’s easier to tell with some than with others. My point is, “My God, there are an awful lot of you, are there not?”

This brings me back to the dabbling, the question which I will here answer with a promise, and thereby bring this inaugural entry to a point. As long as Kate and I live in Columbus and are working in theatre, we promise to never, ever start our own theatre company. It is a fine endeavor in and of itself, and my hat is off to the many of you who have undertaken it. More importantly, you have our thanks, since you have provided us with a theatre community already overly rich with multiple perspectives and approaches. To be perfectly honest, it’s a little overwhelming.

We can’t wait to keep learning where our talents are most needed, and where what we have to offer will be the most useful. So if you ever need an actor, or a director, or a dramaturg, or a voice coach, or a fight choreographer, or someone to run a workshop on Elizabethan verse, or someone to hang and focus a light or learn how to run a board, for God’s sake, call us! Because we’re not your competition; we’re your collaborators. And no matter how much we may inevitably dabble, we’re not starting our own company.

This concludes the inaugural entry of David’s Corner. Congratulations.

Published on March 5, 2011 at 1:56 AM  Comments (3)  

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3 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Damned glad you’re here, David! Nice to be in demand, eh?

  2. God damnit, David. If you don’t start your own theatre company, who the hell’s going to produce my plays? Namely, “This Is Your Life” and “Bloody Lies.” Oh, and “A History of Bad Ideas.”

    In all seriousness, I applaud your focus.

    In 75% seriousness, if you’re interested in passing my work around…

  3. Tim, once again, thank YOU for welcoming us into the fold, so to speak. 🙂

    And Greg, if there isn’t already a place in this world for us to finally follow up on one of my favorite callbacks of all time and just do “Bloody Lies” together already… than this world isn’t good enough. Not. Even. Close.

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