Monday, May 17, 2010

R&T final synthesis

As you know, I have students in all my classes write final syntheses - usually not graded, and sometimes in a medium of their choice (some creative examples). Since our pedagogy is seminar-style, many of the most important moments in a class are not scripted - at least not until someone writes them into the script. But even if we were a more conventional lecture-style school, it still would be a valuable exercise. It seems the best way for students to hold on to what they've been learning and thinking - and the best way for me to find out what I'm actually teaching, or helping happen in the classroom. As a rule, I do a final synthesis, too.

Repeating Religion & Theater, after two and a half years, was a treat. A chance to revisit some wonderful and challenging texts and issues, and to recombine them and integrate new experiences (we also shed a lot). The main change was to structure the class around a series of larger themes, each an "ellipse" centered on a single play and a work in theory or history of religion, and to spend several classes on each theme. The themes and plays were explored also through questions of acting practice and interpretation: how were actors prepared to play in these works when written, and how would/could one present the works today? (Most ambitious example of this: Britten's Sumidagawa-adaptation in Curlew River.) The course remained (probably inevitably) focused on theatrical rather than religious performance, but we did send students to attend two theatrical religious services: Purim and Palm Sunday.

How did it all add up? I'm looking through the students' final syntheses, and lots of people learned lots of things. Me too. Some of the issues I shared in the last class:

Beyond Serial Monotheism
My conclusion last time 'round was that theater involves a kind of serial monotheism - a quality of commitment to a particular production which religions would envy, but after one performance the commitment moves to the next one. Now I think I missed the wood for the trees. The life of the person in the theater as a whole, moving from play to play, has an integrity to it, a discipline and practice of emptying of self to characters and fellow performers, etc., which is deepened over time (or can be). On the other hand, a commitment to a particular religion isn't (or needn't be) monotonous, whether in the cycle of holidays or rites of passage, assisting powers like saints and bodhisattvas, or the journey of a soul. There's much religion and theater have to teach each other.

It's worth really thinking through what it means that belief is performed (Lopez), and that performance strives to be believable (or, as Erik Ehn put it, invites belief). This might change your understanding of all your convictions and commitments, performances and practices in a salutary way. (And while you're at it ponder what's promised by the phrase "faithful interpretation." Traditions, religion as well as others, live on only because they are reperformed, (re)interpreted... a new interpretation can be more "faithful" than an old one.)

Repetition (a broader term than ritual) seems the daily bread of religion as well as theater (both rehearsal and performance). But does repetition deepen or flatten things, clarify or routinize? Are there bad and good forms of repetition (as we saw in Sotoba Komachi or Godot)? Is only the repeated real (Eliade), or does only the repeated let us appreciate, by a kind of contrast, the evanescent truly real?

The In-Between
The scenes you chose for final performances largely took place in some limbo after death, whether purgatory, hell, or judgment; other plays we looked at, from Bacchae through Noh and Faustus to Godot, are similarly in an in-between. Is there an affinity between the stage and what Soyinka described in "The Fourth Stage" - the transition between lives which keeps the cycle of death and birth going - and religious ritual? Does the artificiality of it, however hyperreal it also can (therefore) be, make it a wishful fantasy of transcending our mortality, or do we participate (at least anticipatorily) in actual transcendence? (Is this why actors are sometimes described as priests or shamans?) But is it a presentiment of transubstantiation (Calderon) or just a retablo de las maravillas (Cervantes)?

The Shape of History
The story told by secularization theory turns out to be true only of a small part of the world (Berger) - but this is the part on which we tend to base our understandings of theater and its history. As artists and thinkers, you have a choice whether to promote secularization (because it's not going to happen by itself) or to explore the persistent but hard-to-conceptualize enchantment of the world.

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