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Devised Theatre: Short-Circuiting Armageddon

03.22.11 | Comment?


CATEGORIES collaboration, devised work, new plays, playwrights, the process, theatrical ecosystem

Week 3. Is it just me, or are destruction stories a lot less interesting—or at least less fantastical—than creation stories? And there are a lot fewer variations on how things end than on how things begin. Maybe because with creation you have to work for it. We can’t imagine how things like worlds and civilizations can be born whole cloth. So we tell amazing stories about giant turtles, or gods sculpting creation out of clay. But a destruction story is a lot easier to tell. Oh, we can still make up a fantastical destruction myth. But who would believe it. When there are so many all-too-common ways to destroy a world.

This week’s workshop comes on the heels of the quake in Japan, and it is hard to talk about the idea of apocalypse in the abstract when we have a very real example of devastation.

Like so many other people on the planet, we are following the events online. Here are people whose world—everything that they had ever known—has been turned upside down in an instant. I learned about it on Twitter; watched the video on news sites; followed various feeds as events continued to unfold.

One of our ensemble members wonders if this instant access to technology, this ability to jump from feed to feed, to have a nation’s suffering compressed into a 45 second video clip of waves sweeping through streets, desensitizes us to the reality of human pain. If these were our neighbors, wouldn’t we rush to help? If these were our family, wouldn’t we cry in horror? Instead, we donate money, or we do not.

It’s a question that’s come up before: Does technology unite us, or isolate us, or both? Also, does this awareness that these terrible events are happening breed empathy or numbness?

I suggest that, either way, it’s better than the alternative.

Go back 100 years, and it would have been months before anyone on this side of the world would have heard about such an event. A little farther back, and we might never have known at all. And we certainly wouldn’t have cared about people of a different race on the other side of the globe.

Someone suggests that everyone on the Internet is responsible for empathizing with the entire world. I don’t know if it’s a responsibility we’ve acknowledged or accepted. But I hope that a collective awareness of the pain of others is better than ignorance of it.

As I’m writing this, there’s a Twitter stream building on #2amt debating the definition of audience. Should we make theatre for the people within driving distance; should we make theatre for ourselves; should we make theatre for anybody and everybody?

I do not know the answer.

I will say this: one thing that dramaturging the creation and destruction myths of disparate cultures has taught us is that, as a species, we share the same needs and the same fears. We tell the same stories again and again, spanning continents and centuries.

Whether this means an all-nude Macbeth is going to play in Poughkeepsie, I have no fucking clue.

But it does mean that a Japanese filmmaker can stuff a nation’s collective fear of nuclear Armageddon into a rubber monster suit and cement one of the most well-known 20th century destruction myths into the zeitgeist.

Maybe that’s another reason we tell stories of our own destruction. So we can understand it, grasp it, and concoct ways to fight back. Storytelling as a way to short-circuit Armageddon.

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