Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Pragmatic Theater: Responsivity V [Using Fallacies]

In the last post, I talked about the fallacy of pretending to introduce interactivity, while still attempting to exert final artistic control--which has the effect of creating the illusion of interactivity, while in actuality shutting the audience out. This is a very cheeky sort of manipulation, and will usually be resented.

However, in some cases, this may not be a bad move, and I would be remiss to point out that in one of my favorite plays of all time, Thom Pain (Based on Nothing), the device is very intelligently mis-used. And the fact of the matter is, I love Thom Pain because it deliberately flaunts the above rule.

The form of Thom Pain is that of a soliloquoy: a hyperconscious character (aware of his own flaws and limitations, but helpless in the face of them--see Notes From The Underground for a superb example) addressing a captive audience. Very quickly, the character of Thom Pain establishes a clear dialogue relationship with the audience, but it is clear that he is not giving actual space for the audience to respond. He moves forward cavalierly, addressing the audience and interpreting their silences however he wants to imply a response. He torments the audience, playing mindgames with them, trying to catch them off guard, and toys with the idea of dragging someone onstage (which he finally does--an audience plant).

But this combination of equal parts inviting the audience to speak and enforcing their silence is part of an undercurrent of sadism that the character is inflicting on the audience. In fact, in discussing his plan to drag someone onstage, he says, "I am- because of my own pains- going to make someone else suffer, without proportion." It is clear from the contextual menace that this is going to be the fate of the hapless person brought onstage (who in actuality will simply be left there). In a way, that sentence sums up one aspect of Thom Pain's relationship with the audience. (One counterpoint would be this sentence: "I know this wasn’t much, but let it be enough.").

Thom Pain swings erratically between forcibly rejecting the audience, and trying to bring them in as close as possible. Because the play is structured as being a Thom-Pain-eyed view on the situation, it is crucial to the structure of the play that no one say anything. There is no better summation for how Thom Pain sees himself in the world than a sea of faces, unmoving, listening with neither approval or disapproval, ready for him to project whatever fantasies, judgments, or emotions he wants to project on them.

So, why in the hell am I going about writing all these rules, if I'm just going to turn around and disprove them? The reason that aesthetic writers (Brecht being the most notable example) tend to be so extremist is because then they don't have to deal with all of the nuance and contradiction that tend to muddy message. Brecht had a message to convey: "An alienated Epic theater is the new way," and it would have been horribly confusing as a guide for him to have said, "Well actually Aristotilean drama is still the heart and soul of theater, but incorporating Epic Theater elements such as alienation will give it an added effect which I feel the nation needs at this time."

So I wrote a generalized rule, which basically said, if you want to make theater interactive, it's all or nothing. Another way of putting it is, if you want to make theater interactive, be ready to deal with the consequences. And basically, it said that the illusion of involvement is worse than no involvement at all.

But like all rules, they are made to be broken. But like all rules, they can only be broken effectively once understood.

Perhaps it is worth restating what the Pragmatic Theater means to me. A Pragmatic Theater is not a theater of absolutes, of a unified aesthetic with no contradictions. Quite the opposite: a Pragmatic theater is a home of all the nuance and contradictions that real life and real art encompasses. The Pragmatic Theater is not an absolute guide: it is merely a way of thinking of theater.

And how is it a way of thinking of theater? It's a way of evaluating theater based on its effects. This would be, it seems to me, the most instinctive and natural way of going about theater, but many people in the art world seem to have a good many ideologies or belief-systems that keeps them buttonholed from taking new approaches.

So when I articulate an idea ("theater needs to be more interactive; interactivity needs to be central and not half-baked"), what I am really saying is that, in my personal judgment, the context and the moment call for a certain approach in general; also, I am stating my own observations about the working or not working of certain methods.

Although I don't sit around citing everything and footnoting the crap out of everything (believe me, the impulse has been there), I do try and keep all of my ideas grounded in specific examples: plays I have seen or participated in, political moments I have watched, things I have read.