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Is There Another Way?

ART TIMES May, 2005

It strikes me that theater today is at a point rather similar to where painting was about a century ago. Once upon a time, if you wanted to see actors enact a story on the stage, there was only one way to do it: you went to a theater and saw actors enacting a story on a stage. Very simple. It was actually a very simple desire, and it had what is at heart a simple solution. That solution was invented a very long time ago, in several different places—Greece, India, China, possibly South America. And things stayed in that simple mode for quite literally thousands of years.

Along came motion pictures. Now there were two ways to see actors enact a story—on stage, and on screen. And then came radio, and you could hear actors enacting a story, even though you couldn’t see them, and finally along came television. Now there were three ways to see those actors telling their stories. As things grew and changed, each of those ways of doing business developed a flourishing variety of ways and means, such that we now can see moving images of actors or hear actor’s voices in quite a few ways.

But there’s still only one way to experience the living presence of the actor, and that’s in a theater. There are more kinds of theaters now, and more modes of presentation, but it is still essentially the same process: live performance in front of live audience.

The problem is that those other media can do some things better than the live theater. Radio can open up the drain plug at the bottom of Lake Michigan, drain out all the water, replace it with vanilla ice cream, chocolate sauce, and bananas, all delivered by a massive fleet of military vehicles, and finished off by a multi-ton maraschino cherry—and you can hear it all happen in the space of 30 seconds, as was done by a very amusing radio commercial many years ago. Particularly with the development of computerized graphics, there is literally nothing the mind can imagine that cannot be presented with extraordinary verisimilitude on a screen, either large or small. The live stage cannot do these things. It can live, it can breathe, but it cannot destroy New York City with a tsunami before your eyes with terrifying visual realism.

Nor should it. The theater should do what painting did: find out what it really is and be whatever that is. Painting discovered that it wasn’t about creating visual stimuli that mimic the visual surface of external reality. Painting discovered that photography did that job arguably better than it could, and certainly did it quicker and cheaper. Painters discovered that the use of line, color, form, mass and texture to evoke response in a viewer was what their art is about, and they proceeded to do so with great abandon, from the Impressionists through Picasso and all those other modern movements to our own day.

I would argue that the theater needs to do a very small number of very important things in order to rediscover itself. These may be painful.

It needs to abandon verisimilitude in design. In particular, it needs to figure out how to abandon verisimilitude in costuming, because of the six design areas (costume, setting, lighting, makeup, properties and sound) costuming has the tightest relationship to external reality. We do not know how to put shoes on an actor, or a hat on an actor, without evoking a fairly particular historical period. Even going barefoot or bareheaded evokes period. If we could break the ties that bind to superficial reality in costuming, we could find a way to make costumes do what we can already do with setting, lights and sound: evoke response in the audience through color, texture, drape, line and shape without worrying about what a person like that character would have worn in whatever we think of as their time.

Here is the test, or maybe the challenge: develop an approach to costuming in which Clytamnestra, The Wise and Foolish Virgins, Juliet, Millamant, Hedda Gabler and Blanche Dubois can all pull from the same wardrobe. Do justice to each character—but to hell with the period, unless there’s something there that does the job better than anything else available. Make the costumes wearable, durable and transformable, so that costuming becomes a capital investment, like lighting equipment, rather than a consumable, like program inserts.

Is there a way to pass that test? I don’t know. I’ve never seen it done, or really even attempted. But if it can be done, the rest of the design and performance disciplines in theater can also do it, and theater would then be free to be itself, as painting freed itself to follow it’s own nose. Who knows where that might lead?

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