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Nathan Thomas

The Long Winding Road

I was a fool.

This column began in 1999.  It was a very different era.  The important news of the day was about whether or not a president lied about sex.  Given that most people lie about sex at some point, this issue was not loaded with mystery. Since then we’ve had the George W. Bush years followed by the Barak Obama years.   We’ve seen major attacks in our nation by extremists of various sorts. Foreign-born crazies killed with airplanes.  Home-grown crazies use the more homely method of spraying innocents with bullets. 

In 1999 there was barely an internet that could be accessed by most people via digital information sauntering down a phone line at a turtle’s pace.  Since then we’ve seen the explosion of services and apps.  The video store and the book store and the music store were replaced by streaming video and music on a tablet on which I can also house as many books as a world of plenty can provide.

So I was a fool. 

When the publisher first offered a soap-box for me to use to air my views, I was full of everything that I felt needed said. My voice would provide correctives about theatre history, provide my views of what makes good theatre, and provide a voice of common sense amongst the general hubbub of nonsense that gets said about theatre and theatre people.  In fact, I thought at the time, I could provide two columns a month.  (Honestly, in my heart of hearts, I thought I could do something more like a column a week.)

What an idiot.

In the intervening years, what I thought was new and needed saying has become common-place.  The Russian Theatre History world has been working steadily over these past years to deal with the wealth of myths about Stanislavsky and Meyerhold.  Any person can call up any number of useful videos and archival video about either of these men.  You can see E. Garin in clips from Meyerhold’s production of Gogol’s Revisor (The Inspector General) on YouTube.  You can see outstanding Russian scholars speaking at length about Stanislavsky’s life and work.

Theatre has been steadily getting better. Certainly there’s still less fortunate work that gets done.  But the “cookie cutter” training that seemed to be de rigueur when I was coming up seems to be going away.  When I was coming up few people spoke about pedagogy. Now we have great books by Ellen Margolis and Lissa Tyler Renaud (The Politics of American Actor Training) and by Steven Wangh (The Heart of Teaching), for example.

So what needs said anymore?

When I was a boy, I heard a number of old-fashioned sermonizing.  Outside of the rare exception most sermons basically said, “You’re a sinner, but God loves you.  So repent and throw yourself on the altar of mercy.  Hard.”

And when I was an actor out on the road touring through America’s big cities and small towns, I was introduced to the Tour Tale. The American tour tale is essentially a million stories with but one plot – “We faced improbable, crazy hardships; somehow the show went up; and they loved us.”  Regardless if it’s a 19th century Tour Tale about a company the played in a barn with candles stuck in potatoes on the front edge of a platform – so that the cast speeded up the show to end before the candles extinguished, or a story about 21st century actors who drove off of the GPS’s recorded roads to find a small town that resembles an old “Twilight Zone” set; the tales are always the same.

So each month I get to a place where I think, “Well, does this really need saying?  Other folks are saying this all the time.  Do I need to add to it?”

My little girl got a dancing Snoopy dog for Christmas.  Someone engineered and figured out how to make Charlie Schulz’s Snoopy as a robot that would play the famous jazz tune associated with the Peanuts’ cartoons while the robot careens back and forth, dancing and lifting its ears.  Now that’s entertainment.

We can sit on the couch and for a nominal fee have access to a century’s worth of film and television all ready to be watched on a high-definition screen with crystal-clear sound reproduction on Bose speakers that fools you into wondering if the performers are standing in the same room as you.  And  we never have to get out of our jammies.

So it can feel a little foolish to write a column about theatre.  Theatre is an old technology.  It’s not efficient.  It soaks up money and resources.  It takes time — a show that’s thrown together looks like it’s been thrown.

I think that probably the first thing we humans figured out was story-telling.  Even before fire, you can’t sleep all of the dark hours.  And sex can take up some of that extra time, but it can’t fill up all of it.  I think we had stories before we figured out fire.  I think it’s that old.

Oh, there were a few nutjobs and shamans who pretended to be someone else.  But then someone figured out that rather than tell a story about Agamemnon in the third person, I could tell the story of Agamemnon by pretending to stand in for Agamemnon.

Telling stories switching from third person reports to first person immediacy.  No wonder it caught on.

It’s something to hear a story, or read a story. But it’s a different level of experience to see the story – to see the characters behave in real time and real space. No wonder it caught on.

No wonder that as technology developed people wanted the chance to have those experiences any time and any place – such excitement to see stories told by the expedient of having the characters tell the story in the first person.  More than suspension of disbelief – a real connection to what the characters seem to experience.

With all that is possible today, a person can feel a little sheepish talking about old-fashioned theatre.

But there’s something important we always have to remind ourselves and each other about.

You wouldn’t want to live your life on potato chips and other processed foods.  You know that if you eat nothing but processed foods, you feel sick. 

That’s our bodies.  What about our souls?  Our minds? Our hearts?

We know that the big blockbusters are processed and focus-group tested to achieve maximum returns.  This isn’t to say there isn’t artistry involved.  There’s also culinary skill in developing the next Twinkie. And it isn’t to say that I think all of the snack food aisles should be removed from the grocery stores.  I like a good snack as much as the next guy.

But we need to always keep the un-processed, real, live experience of people being together in a room telling a story.

It’s a very human way that we can tug on each others’ sleeves and say, “Hey, you’re human.  We’re human together.  You’re not alone.”  Sometimes that’s what someone needs as much as anything – the quick reminder that they’re not alone.  It’s not just them.

Some theatre is going to be boring.  We need to do what we can to minimize that.

But we need to remind ourselves that we do important work.  We tell stories.  Mostly in dim light.  And we work to reach out to every single person in the audience and remind her that we’re all human together.  It’s not just that person.  Constructing mini, short-lived communities.  Then there’s applause, and we all leave.

A guy feels a little sheepish that that’s all there is to say.

But it’s worth saying and saying again.

Now, do that show.

You’re not alone.  It’s not just you.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles,
Check the Archives:

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©2016 Nathan Thomas
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine




January 2016

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