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Features Essays Published 21 September 2012

Theatrical Innovation: Whose Job Is It?

A speech originally given by Howard Shalwitz, Artistic Director of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company, at the TCG Conference in Boston on 21st June 2012.
Howard Shalwitz

Thank you Teresa for that kind introduction. I feel very honored by the opportunity to share a few thoughts with all of you today at the opening of this conference entitled Model the Movement. After more than 60 years of spreading theatres all across America, the movement has become so big and diverse – encompassing everything from 1000-seat regional theatres, to 200-seat alternative companies, to peripatetic devising ensembles – we might wonder if it’s possible to model it at all. But I hope that my topic this afternoon, theatrical innovation, is one that concerns all of us. Especially today, with theatre education practically gone from our schools and new forms of distraction everywhere, it feels as though finding innovative ways to speak to new audiences is not a luxury, but a matter of survival.

Innovation is a topic I’ve been thinking about for some time. Woolly Mammoth’s founding manifesto, an embarrassing document I don’t readily share, talks in somewhat grandiose terms about solving the contradiction between “the advance of theatre as an art form and the discovery of new and larger audiences” for theatre. I can’t say we’ve achieved this goal, but I know we keep on trying. And for most of our 32-year history, our approach to innovation has been to support the development of the most provocative new American plays we can find, and to get them onto our stage with as much creativity as our talented company members and guest artists can muster.

But a new train of thought related to innovation started for me just two years ago at, of all places, the TCG conference in Chicago. For those who attended, I don’t know if you had this experience, but toward the end of the conference I started to notice how many of the speakers had used the word “storytelling” at one point or other as a virtual synonym for the word “theatre.” And I obsessed over this for a while, and began noticing in theatre brochures and websites how ubiquitous the words “story” and “storytelling” had become as descriptors for what we do.  (“Great stories well told.” “New stories that will touch your heart.” Etc.) And this struck me as odd. When I was growing up, I thought of storytelling as something adults did with children at bedtime; whereas theatre, which I attended regularly from the age of ten, was quite different. It was about spectacle and language and music and magic and actors and emotions and ideas. We certainly wouldn’t call Beckett a storyteller, and even to call Shakespeare a storyteller would be fairly reductive.

Now don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying that stories aren’t a critical part of what we do in the theatre, but to say they’re the whole thing is a bit like a symphony orchestra saying they play melodies or an art museum saying they show pictures. So I started to wonder why this use of the word storytelling had become so widespread.

Just a few months before the Chicago conference I had taken my first trip to see theatre in Eastern Europe. I attended the Divine Comedy Festival in Krakow, which represents during a single week some of the best in Polish theatre from the previous year. And I can tell you, at that festival, there was hardly a story to be found! There was plenty of realism, and in fact, the level of physical and emotional detail from the actors was astonishing.  And while there were certainly narrative elements, they were often secondary to the larger artistic framing – accomplished through installation-like scenic design or abstracted staging – which challenged the audience to look at the stories metaphorically or from unexpected angles. Texts were cobbled together or de-constructed from literary sources, films, classic plays, documentary material, community interviews, improvisation. Even the one new play I saw that was actually scripted by a playwright, entitled No Matter How Hard We Tried by the brilliant young writer Dorata Maslowska, was only enough of a story to subvert the very idea of story.

Scene from No Matter How Hard We Tried. Photo: Ctibor Bachratý

At first it appeared to be a colorful portrait of a lower class Polish family as seen through the eyes of a teenage girl; then the lens shifted and it became clear that the characters were in a television show; and then the lens shifted again and it became clear that this family never existed because the character we thought was the grandmother had been annihilated as a young girl during the bombing of Poland in World War II. And the production, directed in visionary style by Grzegorz Jarzyna, had virtually none of the storytelling scenic elements we might imagine from reading the script, but just a few ratty pieces of furniture in front of a large video screen on which some of the images in the play were represented by childlike little squiggles, until the final scene when the bombing of Warsaw was depicted behind the grandmother and her non-existent granddaughter with overwhelming realistic force. 


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Howard Shalwitz is a contributor to Exeunt Magazine

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