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There goes the bell

09.02.10 | 14 Comments


CATEGORIES conversation starter, ideas, rabble rousing

Perhaps I am a mis-creation
No one knows the truth there is no future here
And you’re the DJ speaks to my insomnia
And laughs at all I have to fear
Laughs at all I have to fear
You always play the madmen poets
Vinyl vision grungy bands
You never know who’s still awake
You never know who understands

-Dar Williams “Are You Out There?

There was a pointed question at the #2amt session at the Chicago Theatre (anti) Conference last week as to what quantifiable things have come out of this tempest in a teapot. A fair question (if early for our 7 months) but lord knows that’s not my goal. The relationships here are my ROI and whatever I am able to create though those relationships are net profit.

But in truth there is something measureable in those relationships. There is a tangible vibration of agreement through the differences that delineate our experience, and a willingness to reach out a hand and help other members of this tribe wherever they are because we understand that somehow we are linked. It is that vibration that frees me to whisper my dreams and wonder if there isn’t a way to make them real. (If I could find the spot where truth echoes. I would stand there and whisper memories of my children’s future.) I have long had a desire to see the theatre education model in the United States reformed and I think that we can offer some help with that in our own little way. I want to start at the very beginning, a very good place to start…


We know in our bones that there is something about the way we educate our future theatremakers that is out of step with the way theatre is made. Those of us outside the Educational Infrastructure have little power to change that. What we can do is speak the truth about the world outside of academia and seek to offer “continuing education” to any who want to listen.

My theme for the day?

The enforced separation of specialized “technical” and ”artistic” students from the beginning of their education creates artificial boundaries between disciplines and shorts future theatremakers and the field the creativity that comes from fully empowered creators who later specialize in an area of their choice. In my Utopian ideal I want my designers to speak the same language as directors. I want my electricians and carpenters to be as widely read as my actors. There of course needs to be eventual specialized education but we branch too early (in the curricula I have been exposed to) and there ends up being an artificial (and unnecessarily acrimonious) separation between “artistic” and “production” staffs.

To those of you still in school, here are five books that some #2amt folks felt were essential theatre theory books. Keep an eye on the comments section as well because they’re going to add more.

[note: these are not affiliate links,
if you have the funds please support a local theatre/arts bookstore]

The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate

Peter Brook
This selection was almost unanimous. It isn’t a guide book so much as a exhortation toward something more. It’s a surprisingly quick read even on top of your already burdensome course load.

Yet when we talk about theatre this is not quite what we mean. Red curtains, spotlights, blank verse, laughter, darkness, these are all confusedly superimposed in a messy image covered by one all-purpose word. We talk of the cinema killing the theatre, and in that phrase we refer to the theatre as it was when the cinema was born, a theatre of box office, foyer, tip-up seats, footlights, scene changes, intervals, music, as though the theatre was by very definition these and little more.

The Dramatic Imagination: Reflections and Speculations on the Art of the Theatre, Reissue

Robert Edmund Jones didn’t “invent” modern set design but he sure did evangelize it. Brilliance associated with brilliance amplifies any message. A member of the Provincetown Players and collaborator with O’Neil, his thoughts ranged far beyond set design and are useful to any theatremaker. (and what state was he from?)

As we work we must seek not for self-expression or for performance for its own sake, but only to establish the dramatist’s intention, knowing that when we have succeeded in doing so audiences will say to themselves, not, This is beautiful, This is charming, This is splendid, but–This is true.

Backwards & Forwards: A Technical Manual for Reading Plays

David Ball created a handy technical guide to give you a method for working through all the plays we’re going to recommend for you in the future, It’s not as revolutionary as those first two, but reading a whole mess of plays will go down easier if you have a framework for analyzing them.

Towards a Poor Theatre

Jerzy Grotowski is the least universal of these five. Towards a Poor Theatre is circuitous and poetic in it’s exploration of what exactly constitutes the raw unaltered state of “Theatre” and “Acting”. There are lots of things about his discussion of a Poor Theatre that will frustrate a designer, but I think there is immense value in examining the necessary roots of the theatrical form (especially in reaction to the screen) before we flesh out its bones.

I am a bit impatient when asked, ”’What is the origin of your experimental theatre productions?" The assumption seems to be that "experimental" work is tangential (toying with some "new" technique each time) and tributary. The result is supposed to be contribution to modern staging – scenography using current sculptural or electronic ideas, contemporary music, actors in- dependently projecting clownish or cabaret stereotypes. I know that scene: I used to be part of it. Our Theatre Laboratory productions are going in another direction. In the first place, we are trying to avoid eclecticism, trying to resist thinking of theatre as a composite of disciplines. We are seeking to define what is distinctively theatre, what separates this activity from other categories of performance and spectacle.

History of the Theatre

Brockett and Hildy
Not the book I was taught theatre history from, but easily the most readable volume on theatre history I’ve ever touched. I’m sure you have coursework in theatre history at your revered institution, but it can’t hurt to read up a little more. It makes it considerably less tedious than your standard 8AM survey history class


I urge you to fill the comments with other books that would populate a theatre curriculum you designed. Please refrain from adding plays just yet as that’s a separate post, but what other books would you insist be read on entering college to give every student a firm hold on the vocabulary of the Theatre you would like to see built?

I also encourage you to give examples of theatre programs that you think are doing an exceptional job of broad theatrical education across disciplines. Let us know how they do it so the ever present discussion about relevant educational models can eventually be more focused.

Travis Bedard

Travis Bedard

A long time theatre blogger, Travis is the Artistic Director of Cambiare Productions and a contributing writer to 2amTheatre.com. Travis holds a degree in Theatre (Secondary Education) from the University of New Hampshire and is currently posted in scenic St. Paul Minnesota..
Travis Bedard

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  • I’m going with Artaud and Theatre of Cruelty and/or The Theatre and It’s Double, since he was a major influence on Brook and Grotowski.

    I also think press/marketing books should be required reading for all in the theater. But I don’t think they should be press and marketing for theater or even arts related but more general. We can learn a lot by looking outside of the genre.

  • Carrie Kaufman

    What does it say about the theatre that the recommended books are the same books that most theatre people were recommending 20 years ago. Have we not come up with anything new in that time? Has theatre not evolved?

  • I think the best book I read about theater history (and, unintentionally, design) is Directors on Directing, a book of essays by all kinds of people who made “directing” what it is today. http://www.amazon.com/Directors-Directing-Source-Modern-Theatre/dp/0023233001

    And Carrie, sure, theater has evolved, but maybe the most insightful writing takes longer to land in a published book?

  • Do you have any thoughts on what might be on that level from the last twenty years? Mamet’s polemics are hardly universal and what other high level Theory works have come out? This bears Amazon crawling.

  • Tony Adams

    “Provoking Theatre: Kama Ginkas Directs”

  • I would for sure add Bogart’s A Director Prepares. The title seems to throw folks off, it reaches beyond and before directing.

  • Eric Ziegenhagen

    Top of my list, personally, is Hopper by Mark Strand. Ostensibly a book of essays about geometric explinations for the emotional effects (and individual successes and failures) of Edward Hopper paintings, this book also articulates the effects of what is onstage and offstage, as well as light, exposition, and, fundamentally, the inclusion and exclusion of narrative details. (Incidentally, I gave this book as a birthday gift to a friend of mine who’s a director, who in turn shared it with Sarah Ruhl, and, if my facts are right, this led to some of the Hopper influence on Dead Man’s Cell Phone.)

    So: here’s my list. Some of these are out of print, but are likely on Amazon or in a library near you.

    Lee Alan Morrow – Creating Theater. Published by Vintage in the mid-1980s, each chapter is a roundtable with a different set of theater artists: first playwrights, then actors, then designers, then producers, then critics.

    Peter Brook – The Open Door
    Three lectures. Less academically and more anecdotal than The Empty Space — a quick but thrilling read.

    Delgado and Heritage, eds. – In Contact with the Gods?: Directors Talk Theatre
    Interviews with Lepage, Sellars, Peter Stein, many others. Can’t endorse the title, but fully endorse the book itself.

    Richard Foreman – Unbalancing Acts: Foundations for a Theater
    No need to know or love Foreman’s own productions to gain a whole lot from his thoughts about the medium.

    Charles Ludlam – Ridiculous Theatre: Scourge of Human Folly: The Essays and Opinions of Charles Ludlam
    Part memoir, part tract, part diary; all inspiring. As with Foreman’s book, no need to know or revere Ludlam’s work itself to appreciate his approach.

    Mark Strand – Hopper

    Victor Turner – From Ritual to Theatre: The Human Seriousness of Play
    One of the best books I’ve read as far as describing the true occasions of live performance and the purpose of theater. Others might recommend Richard Schechner’s books for this, but Turner’s is distilled, clear, and enthralling.

  • 1) Peter Brook’s THE OPEN DOOR
    2) TWENTIETH CENTURY THEATRE, A Sourcebook; Edited by Richard Drain; Rutledge, 1995

  • second Anne Bogart’s A DIRECTOR PREPARES, and throw in Carolyn Brown’s CHANCE AND CIRCUMSTANCE: TWENTY YEARS WITH CAGE AND CUNNINGHAM, which is not only a fascinating chronicle of a period when modern art turned upside down, but a revelatory way of looking at what exactly constitutes theatrical composition, and how even to think about it. And while I’m at it, throw in Zeami’s ON THE ART OF THE NOH DRAMA, because it’s good for you.

  • Anonymous

    I’d add Michael Shurtleff’s AUDITION, which is good for everyone working in the business, not just actors preparing for the eponymous event. I re-view it probably every 18 months or so.

    Also, John Barton’s PLAYING SHAKESPEARE, which gets to the heart of the matter. Watching the accompanying videos clarifies, but the book works pretty well on its own.

    Patsy Rodenberg’s PRESENCE.

    Moss Hart’s ACT ONE. One of the best accounts of the journey.

    Finally, if you can find it, Richard Schechner’s ENVIRONMENTAL THEATRE. Even if you don’t want to make that, it asks good questions about how one employs the space to tell the story.

  • THE MONOLOG WORKSHOP: Jack Poggi;
    FREEING THE NATURAL VOICE: Kristin Linklater & THE RIGHT TO SPEAK: Patsy Rodenburg;
    THE END OF ACTING–A RADICAL VIEW: Richard Hornby; and
    AUDITION: Michael Shurtleff

  • Anonymous

    I’d also go with “A Director Prepares.” An artist might not agree with what Bogart says, but it did cause me to analyze my own process and why I did or did not agree with Bogart.

    I’d also put down Simon Goldhill’s “How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today,” which I think pertains beyond Greek tragedy.

  • Anonymous

    It also says that these books are classics of the discipline.

  • My favorite theory book is THEATRE/THEORY/THEATRE, compiled by Daniel Gerould. It’s highly accessible and goes the extra mile to give insight into lives and influences of the great theatrical theorists.

    I’m partial to books for dramaturgs and the bible is DRAMATURGY IN AMERICAN THEATRE (Susan S. Jonas, Geoffrey S. Proehl, and Michael Lupu).

    I also love THE PRODUCTION NOTEBOOKS, edited by Mark Bly. They give great insight into how all that theory really works in real life.


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