The Importance of Challenging Theatre

That I should even feel the need to write an article with the title this one has is extremely depressing. There was a time when expression and innovation in the arts was revered rather than ridiculed, as it is today in political and professional platforms. It is my belief that I was not alive for this time. Particularly in the nation I live in, where the arts are simultaneously protected and denigrated by my current government, the arts seems more and more like a corporate outreach program every day.

Today, artists of any kind - theatre, writing, film or dance - seem to be phobic of making their work relevant to the current time and place. I can't speak for other fields, but what results is what in my field is known as 'dead theatre' (thank you Peter Brooks); a very nicely staged play done in a retrospective context rather than a current one. There is no reason for such a production to exist except to put bums in seats.

The audience is not challenged to think or to reach outside of their comfort zones, and are intellectually massaged for a couple of hours, but they go home happy, new subscribers. A prevalence of dead theatre leads to stagnation and a thinning of the demographic that is not white, ageing, and bourgeois.

That this should be the state of theatre in general in my country is a good reason why we need government grants to keep our major theatre festivals running. In theory, dead theatre does little to alienate or offend, and therefore should result in a piece which is more accessible, but I believe that lack of challenge leads to boredom. Boredom leads to people not attending the theatre. Low attendance leads to the government needing to step in so as to keep these fossils called theatre festivals alive.

When I talk about relevant theatre, I don't mean the glorified soapbox theatre that pops up from time to time. I don't even mean new plays. A well-thought-out production of Hamlet can say more about the modern-day world than any new texts. But there's the proviso - in order for theatre to be relevant, it needs to be well-thought-out.

As my dear drama prof would say:

Why Here? Why Now?

These are two very simple questions that most production teams appear to bypass when they put on their shows. This definitely affects the quality of the show. When a director does not ask these two essential questions, it is my belief that they are putting on their show for all the wrong reasons.

Theatre's inception was intertwined with religion, and was taken very seriously. Today theatre is seen as an 'add-on' of sorts, a perk we can only permit when the economy is good. In times of distress, theatre is to be neglected, at least according to the actions of my current government. I cannot begin to emphasize how wrong this line of thinking is; cultural identity is easily assimilated, even in the best economic circumstances. In times of hardship, it's even easier to become little USA.

It enrages me that the politicians of my nation have a shared contempt of the arts matched only by their condescending babying of theatre. The grants they give to theatre festivals makes directors complacent and politically dulled, and are easily withdrawn when a play that is funded by the government dares to say something that isn't yes. That theatre companies who are fat off the money distributed by politicians give jobs to incompetents and produce theatre which is mediocre to an extreme is just.... grah.

This is while theatre companies who scrape to provide fantastic and relevant theatre can barely find performing space or funding. Fringe festivals, which thankfully strive in my area, showcase a vibrant and alive theatre scene that is not represented by the theatre festivals which monopolize our theatrical consciousness.

I am hopeful that in the future the theatre scene fosters the innovation and leaves the crap, but at present I'm kind of disheartened.

Happy World Theatre Day, everyone.

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