Hey, remember last summer when Tiger King got us through all the fresh hot anxiety of the first wave? It was good! Seemed like every minute of screen time advanced the story in the most ludicrous but believable way. The characters behaved more unpredictably than in fiction. And yet, still arrived at the most-inevitable ending. The whole thing was as mad and messy as poetic. It provided the catharsis we needed.
Leading up to Tiger King (and somewhat since) my field scrambled like mad to “save the people (or the medium?)” with fresh storytelling and performance. The Social Distancing Festival was created to platform canceled performance and the National Arts Centre started to toss funding at the quickest performers to apply for it. As ceaselessness provided momentum to fine-tune and streamline these efforts, political administration followed the trend: it seems to me as though arts funding in Canada hasn’t been this good since Jean Chrétien was Prime Minister. No?
And why not? Society is addicted to stories. I mean, Hollywood is one of the richest industries on the continent. I have been devoting my life to telling stories (and story-ing myself with the idea that doing so must be something like noble?).
What is a story anyway?
When proposing my present collaboration with the Registry Theatre, I cited an idea from children’s psychology, that storytelling can help people exorcise trauma. The act of seeing a fictional character through change, perhaps turmoil, and into new maturity, has a healing effect on our psyches. I’m no longer talking about catharsis (though that’s still welcome). Within the context of Storytelling Therapy reality is socially constructed. This means that there is freedom to see multiple realities of the same event(s) through multiple constructions. One of these constructions might be your trauma. Right now, the world is experiencing trauma.
If this is the case, then story is capable of seeing your trauma through a character arch. Consideer Campbell’s Hero’s Journey through the specific lens of a post-traumatic lifecycle: reluctance to act, supernatural aid, various thresholds, innermost cave, overcoming desire and authority, always moving and never sitting still, all the way through to a denouement of mastering both the Before and After with new freedom to live in peace. It shouldn’t be a great surprise that our psychological needs are the fabric of our most universal traditions.
The structure allows trauma to be perceived through various and complex angles but always leads to a healthier completion. I’m not an expert here but I’ve been made to understand that this is a low-risk form of therapy because fiction is considered mostly harmless.
I think this is one of the reasons we like cartoon violence. I think it’s one of the reasons we keep rewarding dark and difficult theatre. We know from the best storytellers, through catharsis or not, that facing the worst of ourselves can be extremely beautiful.
But lately, when I open my laptop to participate in the art form that's obsessed me most my life, it leaves me feeling dull and hungry.
I still like TV as much as anyone. I adore good cinema. Why don’t I like digital theatre so much?
Whether theatre is actually theatre when it’s on a screen is just semantics. Still, though. Thou shalt not judge one on the virtues of the other.
You’ve been told that, when viewing a live theatrical performance, the audience’s heartbeats will actually sync-up. Live theatre can unify an audience in the most elementally physiological way. There is another warm body in control of the narrative carrying and encouraging us through its joys and turmoils. I don’t think there is anything more vital than a good actor’s breath and presence in reciprocity with an audience’s. It’s the same in traditional therapy: there is another person whose body language, breath, and presence make all the difference in the world to whether or not it's working. But only in relation to your own living physiology.
In an interview with Expect Theatre’s PlayMe podcast after their production of his very dark play, Huff, Cliff Cardinal says, “You have to be there for the audience … If you do a bad show couples start arguing on the way out, people get into fights … If you do a bad show, everybody’s in danger.”
By the craft of the best actors and directors, theatre has a unique capacity to go deeper and further into harder and harder territory, because it carries you gently through it the whole way.
I’ve been watching Fargo on Netflix lately … and it’s really good. Close-range shotgun pellets toss fresh human brains across the room in almost every episode.
TV and cinema are visual mediums on a cold flat screen. And I’m crazy about the mad irony when Joe Exotic fetches his black leather jacket with the medic symbol on it then announces the catastrophe to the unsuspecting gift shop BEFORE going to help Kelci Saffery who just had his arm torn off by a tiger. Beautiful storytelling, just beautiful.
So how come film and television can take us through such horrific things without a warm actor’s breath in charge of the pace? In this realm, images are in charge of the pace. And the pace on a flat screen is often a lot slower than it feels, even when the images are going by a mile a minute.
That is because, in film and television, the viewer is in charge of their own emotional journey. Establishing scenes, short transition shots, the prolifically-filmed slow pans masked by a good soundtrack, etc., are all spaces for the viewer to process the story on their own. Or, for some shows, they’re spaces for the viewer to subconsciously process their day, despite the story.
I venture that film and television are a little closer to meditation and theatre closer to collaboration. Quote me on that. Neither is better than the other, but certainly different.
This is also part of the reason that—particularly as theatre has been getting shorter over the last century and TV episodes getting longer over the last decade—we have come to expect more story packed into a play than into an episode of Fargo, say.
I don’t feel that theatre made for a digital screen is failing me because it isn’t good. Some of it is magnificent. But a lot of digital theatre is doing its very best work without access to its very best vessel: the audience.
Then why did I enjoy watching Hamilton on Disney+ so much? Or what little I caught from National Theatre Live? Or even this archival smartphone video of my own budgetless scrap of theatre? These were performed for a live audience and filming was secondary to that. More importantly, the audiences’ presence can be felt in the performers.
When Prairie Theatre Exchange produced Katharsis and when CBC platformed Obsidian Theatre’s 21 Black Futures, there was no audience. But these worked for me because every directorial choice, particularly in the former, was made to acknowledge that problem. And, while packing character-narrative tightly like theatre tends to, these were short enough not to risk exhausting us with their density.
But when the same thoughtful director who gave us Katharsis did Post Democracy, an impeccably tight script from one of the most celebrated playwrights in the country and delivered through tremendously complex performances, I daresay I felt a little bit robbed of something.
Times I’ve participated in this grand-pivot it was certainly nice to move through the beats of a play with actors in rehearsal. A real gift. But the moment the audience left our zoom screens and all of us were alone in our disparate rooms, it became clear too-little was gained by all the efforts. That feeling was echoed in the curtain call of Post Democracy when the four tremendous actors bowed to a silent room, donned their face masks, and exited in different directions. I was invested enough in their work to feel the loss in that moment. Crucially: without their artful presence to help move me through that loss. That moment a punctuating symbol of missing it throughout.
So what are performance-makers to do in the meantime? We've been trying to develop new audience-expertise in two dimensions. We have to eat and pay rent. But when we eventually enter herd-immunity, what will become of the investments we’ve made being beginners at different skill-sets? Will we still reap the benefits of this temporarily increase in arts funding? If so, what about the funding’s long insistence on producing digital work?
There has been an endless chorus about supporting the artists through this moment in history. And, yes, I do believe we are crucial. One fear I have is that it may be feast now and famine after. But much more importantly, in the meantime, we haven’t supported our audiences in the ways we know best.
Navigating all this has caused many of us to put the artists’ needs before the audiences’. Both naturally and accidentally. It’s a shame. And I hope it’s a lesson we never forget. I hope we have both the love and the resources to make up for such a sin. Because, truly, all of us want nothing more than to hold you on our breath, to carry you through the universal challenges of being ourselves, and to physically share the deeply unique beauties that lie on the other side of that communion.
Until then, I don’t think there is a right answer other than to continue being a beginner at something only adjacent to the traditions and training most of us have. But we absolutely must find ways to put our audiences before ourselves in whatever future we are moving towards. If not, we're here for the wrong reasons. As Cliff Cardinal says, we can put people in danger.