Thursday, December 4, 2008

A Post About Naturalism

I haven't done a theater post in a while, but, this seemed important.

(From American Theater, via TheatreForte)

We have to be very clear when we talk about naturalism in the theatre. It's a stylistic choice, and it's a deadly one for the theatre. Naturalism is a style that developed in the '40, '50, and 60's, that supposedly comes from the Stanislavski approach - but that is to misunderstand Stanislavksi. Naturalism is not suited to the theatre because theatre is about communication with the audience. In the end the only question in the theatre is: How does the play become alive? In fact, theatre only exists in the mind of the audience - it does not exist on stage, or in a play. It only exists because the audience brings it alive.


I've been thinking about this recently, and I wouldn't necessarily go so far as to say that all natural theater is deadly theater. But I will point out the key phrase: "Theatre is about communication with the audience." The actors have to remain in conversation with the audience.

What naturalism, and current "naturalist" methods of acting do, is they try to immerse the actor in the "world" of the play. But in order for that world to be "real" (in the everyday sense of reality), the naturalist actor has to shut out the audience. And if the actor shuts out the audience, the actor is no longer in conversation with the audience--and then it becomes awkward when the actors is forced to notice the audience (pausing for a laugh, for instance).

I have a problem that happens to me sometimes when I'm acting, which is that I laugh at things which look funny on stage. Not things that look funny to me; one director said that my laughing problem is that I always have an eye, watching the stage from the audience's perspective, and therefore, when I see something that would be funny to me in the audience, I laugh. Of course, this would destroy any "realism" in the situation.

On The Daily Show, of course, sometimes Jon laughs; sometimes Stephen Colbert used to crack up. This was acceptable--partly because it was comedy, and partly because it wasn't realism. There was no pretense at them not being themselves. Because they are being more honest to themselves, they are permitted to laugh, or to cry (see Jon Stewart on 9/11).

This is part of not shutting the audience out; they have the flexibility to respond to the audience. Barack Obama understands it; that's why sometimes when someone calls out "We love you Obama!" he responds, "Love you too." The freedom to be able to break the moment and acknowledge the audience requires you to be allowed to percieve the audience; naturalism fights that.

The quotation continues:

I saw kabuki theatre in Japan, where, in a given scene, weeping takes place on stage in an extraordinarily stylized form. I was transfixed, looking along the row of faces alongside of me and watching how everyone in the audience was weeping, too. The emotion at that moment on stage was real, in the same way as when Don Giovanni is led down to hell and he sings his last act of defiance. The emotion of that moment is also real--it's heightened, it's extreme, but it's completely real. Reality in the theatre is created by actors, and it occurs only in that moment--which is why you will find actors saying "we had a good night" or "oh, tonight wasn't so good." What actors really mean is that they have found that point of communication, so you can have a great production and you can go and see it and it won't mean anything to you at all if this moment of connection between actors and audience doesn't happen. Equally, I have seen pieces of theatre that are rough and appallingly overacted or rude--and yet I've been deeply moved by them. Sometimes, even with terrible performances, actors find a way to communicate with an audience. That's why theatre can't work on video. It's an imaginative act on the part of the audience. And that is theatre's appeal, that's why it continues.


Perfect, perfect diagnosis of why theater doesn't work on video, and returns to the same point. I just say that heightened and extreme emotion is not the only way of reaching that genuine emotion; minimalism shoots for a gesture at genuine emotion (and therefore is minimized, distilled emotion), and sometimes realism hits emotion on the right level. But I agree.


Everyone thought theatre would die with the appearance of cinema, just as everyone thought painting would die with the appearance of photography. But all photography did was to liberate painting to be itself. Without photography, we would not have Picasso or Rothko. Painting would still be trying to do what photography can do much better. We need painting to do what happened on the walls of caves eons ago - to record what we deeply feel, and the complexity of what we feel and imagine. In the same way, film has liberated theatre to be itself. Without film, we wouldn't have Jacques Copeau, who gave rise to Antonin Artoud. We wouldn't have the plays of Beckett or Pinter. So in the theatre, what you do is to create the language to communicate with the audience on that night in that moment.


This is a fascinating theory, and I love it. It goes back to Plato's criticism of art in The Republic as being three removes from truth (there's the ideal of the object, then there's its "imitation" as it exists in reality, then the "imitation of imitation" of artists). The role of reproducing images, is what landscape or portrait painting was about; photography took that over, and painting got at something else. The role of reproducing narratives is film; theater gets at that something else.

Now, what that "something else" is remains up for grabs. Is it delving into the emotion of it (as this author puts forward)? Is it the relationship to the audience (as this author always puts forward)? Is it a ritual? An artifact? Those questions remain. But this is the starting point.

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