“All the world’s a stage”. It’s an almost meaninglessly ubiquitous snippet of the Bard that, as a theatre writer, I ought to have a dread of opening with. Yet those five painfully over-quoted words carry an intriguing implication. Because if we really do conceive of the world as a stage and our everyday exchanges as another kind of performance upon it, what does that do to theatre itself? And what impact does that understanding of the world have on the relationship between the reality of the theatre and the reality outside?
As these questions might suggest, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about theatre and the wider world – not so much in the sense of whether or not theatre can make a difference in the world beyond the space of its performance, which is an argument so often short-circuited by being debated in disingenuous or misguided terms, but more in the sense of how we imagine theatre’s place within society. This is partly due to a weekly seminar that has had me returning to – and in some cases reading for the first time – the series of relationships between theatre and society that have been theorized over the centuries: Plato, Aristotle, Rousseau, Schiller, to name just a few of the headliners. Whether conceiving of that relationship as vexed or harmonious, the obsession with it is strikingly persistent.
Such thoughts have also surfaced partly in anticipation of Chris Goode & Company’s The Forest and the Field, which I’ll be seeing at Ovalhouse this week. As the Ovalhouse website helpfully informs me, this is “a gently seductive, immersive piece of non-fiction storytelling, which asks its audience to look at themselves, and to consider what we’re all doing when we meet in a theatre space”. Unsurprisingly, it’s that last little bit that most interests me. I didn’t see the piece’s previous incarnation back in 2009, but Chris’s distinction between “the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things” has been snagged on my brain long enough to made me hungry to interrogate that idea further, even if – as I suspect – I’m not fully up to the task.
The answer to that question of what we’re all doing in a theatre space might seem staggeringly obvious. Surely we are gathered together in one place, usually under the anonymous blanket of darkness, to watch other people perform. At the end we will probably applaud. We might, hopefully, think about what we’ve seen. The optimist might even insist that we leave the theatre changed in some way, galvanised to meet the challenges of the world outside.
My use of the word “outside” is not accidental. The concept of “outside”, naturally paired with “inside” as its polar opposite, seems to haunt much theatre and the discussion that surrounds it. Inside or outside the bounds of the performance event, part of or on the fringes of traditionally understood definitions of theatre, internal or external to the text. Understood in such dichotomised terms, theatre is always inside, referring to an outside that is ever separate and elsewhere. If all the world really is a stage, then perhaps the theatre is its rehearsal space.
But what my initial, crude description of what theatre does deliberately neglects is any sense of real action or making within the sphere of the event. Something happens in that space between the people who occupy it. It might have a bearing on or a certain understanding of the world beyond those four walls – in fact, it would be fairly impossible for it not to have some kind of relationship, however big or small, with the society in which it exists – but it isn’t simply a suspended act, somehow separate and sealed off from its “real” surroundings. Theatre is always in some way doing and making, perhaps at the same time as representing, and that doing is an act in and of itself, whether or not it offers a model for wider change. When thought of in this way, inside and outside – those troubling ideas that we stubbornly try not to taint with one another – become sort of irrelevant. The theatre event is both and neither and a mashed up mixture of the two.
While these confused and simplified thoughts lack nuance, at the heart of the image of theatre I’m beginning to form is a melting of the divisions drawn by the thinkers I find myself reading each week. Running through many of their arguments, whether for or against theatre and its position within society, is an assumption that theatre does one of two things: create through its form an ideal (or not so ideal, depending on the perspective) version of society within the space of the theatre event, or communicate and thus teach a mode of interacting with one another that is then to be applied to society outside. An either/or situation, not bridged by an “and”.
Although the context and exact terms of these discussions differ, there seems to be – at least to my mind – a certain similarity with Chris’s differentiation between “the theatre that (thinks it) shows things versus the theatre that (knows it) makes things”. Showing versus making, passive representation versus active enactment. What I find myself wanting to ask is whether these two functions can occur at once. Can theatre not be aware of what it’s making within the space and simultaneously offer through a form of showing or representation a new way of looking at the world?
Theatre is constantly and often unhelpfully attended by binaries – entertaining and pedagogical, dramatic and postdramatic, text based and non-text based – the most enduring of which is arguably the line it seems to draw between fiction and reality, play world and real world, whether this line is sketched at the edge of the stage or intersects with the performance itself. It’s perhaps not surprising, therefore, that again and again its purpose has been starkly seen as either demonstrating or doing, acting as performance or acting as action. But is it really so hard to imagine that it might be both?