A theater visionary named Erik Ehn gave a talk at school today. His topic (assigned, I think) was Playwriting and Activism, and in a dense oracular talk he told us that theater is not theater, plays are not plays, and playwriting isn't playwriting. Instead, theater is social change (it's not about social change, doesn't lead to social change, but is itself a social change, constituting a community). A play is a hospitable occasion for diversity (it needn't be a script at all, though it can be). And a playwrite is a plowblade, disturbing things to create the space for all this to happen. For theater replaces reality with space; it - like the actor - gives itself away (in love). The sequence should be the personal leading to the public, then the plural, and then it's gone. Theater aims not for the fake real but the real fake. It is not action but the deferral of action. It is an invocation of belief not a suspension of disbelief, where a simile becomes a metaphor.
Heady stuff, which the theater students in the audience loved. I was less sure, perhaps because this was theater as religion (Ehn's talk was larded with references to Catholic mystics), and my déformation professionelle makes me suspicious of religious moves. Not of Ehn, who is inspiringly present and committed and real. Nor of his work, which includes, he told us, a commissioned piece for Virginia Tech, which will be not one play but fifteen, and one (or was it each) of those plays will be thirty-two two minute plays (for each of the victims), all played simultaneously thirty-two times. That's fantastic. His call to think outside the black box, the script, the "theater" was inspiring indeed, especially in imaging ways in which theater can serve as activism, addressing and articulating trauma and loss and tragedy. The emphasis on theater as a space for plurality, for diversity to be, was exciting. This was clearly theater as efficacy rather than entertainment.
And yet... is there nothing left for theater but transformation, naming trauma, building communities of witness? One of the saints he invoked was Therese of Lisieux, the Little Flower, and she is, if anything, the saint of the everyday. He picked up on her humility, likening his work to little flowers which someone might pick up and make something of. But one might also say that something art (and religious practice) can do is discover the value of the humble everyday as already suffused with meaning and significance. Arts (and religion) don't just name trauma, help us articulate inarticulable loss, a cry to God, but celebrate and build worlds of good. It may be some of his work does that, too, and just didn't come up today.
Ehn has been going to Rwanda for seven years to study genocide and how society there has moved on (or not), something he described in eloquent impassioned terms about the inevitable imperfection of justice, which needs to be thought of instead as a tactic in the service of peace and hope. But he told an awful, aweful story (which I think I've heard elsewhere too) of a woman who had been told to sing and dance while her husband was killed and her daughter raped before her eyes. Months later, she was still singing and dancing, she couldn't stop, there was no moving beyond that point. I thought Ehn would come back to her (he said he would, I think) but he didn't. Where is she now? Dead of exhaustion? In an asylum? I can't help thinking (perhaps because we've so recently looked at Noh dramas) that a structured tradition of explicitly theatrical exorcism and catharsis in its own constructed space of heightened awareness and unchangeable texts might be what is needed.
Perhaps Ehn (who mentioned Dorothy Day's claim that the church is the cross on which Christ is daily crucified but attends daily mass) thinks only religion can do this. Only God. Perhaps he's right.