Thursday, September 11, 2008

Needed - Good Watchers

“A strong example of the personal way of dodging engagement with the theater is the response of King Claudius. Remember the play Hamlet sets like a trap to catch the conscience of the king? Stung by the opening of The Murder of Gonzago, King Claudius rises, calls for lights, douses the performance and goes off to pray. You may want your life to be affected by the play about Hecuba as deeply as The Murder of Gonzago affected Claudius, but you surely do not want to stop the play in mid-course. Claudius would be the audience from hell, far worse than the audience that is merely bored. Good watchers watch the play to the end and they pay primary attention, the whole time, to what is on stage.” - From The Necessity of Theater; The Art of Watching and Being Watched

Paul Woodruff, Professor of Philosophy at the University of Texas at Austin, has written a book with an intriguing title. The Necessity of Theater is a kind of philosophical treatise in which he attempts to parse, diagram and define the art of theatre. Using a Socratic method, Woodruff hypothesizes a definition of theatre and then sets out to test it from several different angles.

The one sentence definition he presents:

“Theatre is the art by which human beings make human action worth watching, in a measured time and space.”

The ensuing examination takes us from college sports stadiums to how Brecht’s theories triumphed in spite of himself. This is philosophy and so it reads much more methodically, and with less colorful examples than books written by such critics as Eric Bentley, Robert Brustein and even Brooks Atkinson. And it does not have the urgency of Brecht or Artaud’s rallying cries. However, by giving equal time to both sides of the sacred space, “watchers and the watched”, Woodruff opens up some new avenues into exploring theater’s continued relevance and survival.

His emphasis on the art of "watching" is unexpected, welcome, and refreshing. While we often focus our attention, and rightly so, on what is being practiced on stage, we rarely examine, beyond declining attendances and the graying of hair, what is happening on the other side of the lights.

If we really are to pursue the value of theatre as a human connection, then we have to start defining what makes a “good watcher.” Who is the ideal watcher? When are the times when we are at our best as theatre audiences? It is a complex investigation, and sometimes a counterintuitive one.

In the seventh grade we spent a whole music class learning how to watch a classical music performance. The teacher taught us the major movements and how we would be expected to react, applaud, etc. ( This was in a public school, by the way.) Woodruff’s book does not deal with this sort of instruction, as he is looking at the difficult elements of empathy, knowledge and wisdom. But he is interested in the question of transgression of the “sacred space” by both audience and actors. He tracks the tenuous line that transgressive theatre walks, and notes that the real boundary lies at the moment the transgression has interrupted the performance.

Skilled improv performers, working within a fluid, audience-inclusive format can effectively “absorb” a transgressing audience member, and still maintain the space of a show. However, if I am watching a straightforward, proscenium production of the Cherry Orchard at the Huntington and an audience member starts to yell about how the characters are making bad choices, almost immediately the performance has ended. Woodruff would liken this to the fan jumping on the football field to tackle an opposing tailback. This does not make the football game more interesting, Woodruff points out. Why? Because the moment the fan steps onto the field, it is no longer a football game.

Boundaries have just as much to do with the watchers as the watched. In Seattle there is an interesting monthly performance which forbids any audience members. In fact, the actors perform inside a box and the producer mails out postcards asking people NOT to attend. In one case, an audience member transgressed the boundaries by not only attending, but by attacking the box. Is this, secretly, the desired outcome of the creators?

In some ways, I think it would be radical to declare that it is not the watched, but rather the watchers that need to improve in order for theater to regain a larger role in the cultural conversation. But I think such a call will help to improve us all around. Are there ways that theatre artists can help audiences become better watchers? Or is such a proposition too individually focused for any type of instruction; do we risk being seen as the elementary school teacher instructing: “When the conductor enters, you clap.”

Being a good watcher means being deeply engaged, but not participating; caring, but not getting too emotional; thinking, but not drifting away in your thoughts; identifying, but avoiding transference. This is not easy, and it is certainly not passive. The best theatre does not simply invite the best watchers, it DEMANDS them. But, conversely, these demanding spectators are just what gives the art its juice.. Theatre is smart, and it thinks deeper on subjects than many other art forms do. Why? Because the audience is so damned tough.

To illustrate, Woodruff points out the almost impossible artistic achievements of some of our greatest works for the stage. Here he talks of the Greeks:

And so, in Oedipus at Colonus, the play of Sophocles’ that brings us closest to the actions of the gods, we are shown one human choice after another: Oedipus’s determination to sit in the sacred place, his refusal to return to Thebes, his curse against his sons, his plan for his own death, Theseus’s decision to assist him. And whatever the Gods may be doing to consummate Oedipus’s marvelous death, no action of theirs is shown or even described on stage. The messenger from offstage is not allowed to see the death which he reports, and the one man who observes it is forbidden to speak of it.

Sophocles has made Oedipus’s last day worth watching by filling it with action arising from choice, yet if any event is beyond human choice, it should be this one, in which Oedipus is claimed by his destiny. Sophocles seems to have done the impossible, to have conjured choice out of a close web of fate.

Think of the intellectual and emotional demands a play like that makes on the watchers as well as the watched.

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