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Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

Where To Find The New

Back in college days in the Reagan era, I gather I was taught Theatre History in a manner familiar to other American undergraduates.  Back in the day, Theatre History clearly shows a series of innovations that leads inexorably to the wonderful panoply of diversity we have today (“you lucky kids”). It’s not surprising that the book Oscar Brockett wrote about modern theatre history is titled, Century of Innovation.

I can’t say that at the time I much wondered at this interpretation of history.  History and I always get along.  Since I also have a deep love for theatre, the classes – I thought at the time – are a bit of a snap.

Now a moment’s consideration shows the holes in the way that I was taught Theatre History.  If we have continued to evolve to the wondrous Theatre of today, then why Shakespeare centuries ago – and where is his equal (or better) today? Are we really claiming that Big River and Biloxi Blues (the Tony winners of my graduation year) are the culmination of millennia of art?  (Do people still perform Grind? I hope so. . . .)

Having this view of Theatre History, I applied this way of looking at things to current theatre.   For years I wondered where the “new” theatre was?  Who was the contemporary equivalent of Ibsen or Beckett in playwriting?  Who was the equivalent of Stanislavsky or Copeau in affecting acting?  What was the “style” that would set the tone for the future?

I’ve since learned not to look at the contemporary scene quite that way.  But, in the day, I’ve been known to ask theatre professionals and academics about what they thought the next “big thing” was.  Not surprisingly, people have found this question disconcerting or boring, and haven’t thought much toward really answering it.

I’m more forgiving about those lack of answers now. I’m certain that if you could get in the “’Way Back Machine” and chat with people in the Eternal City in 576 A.D., those folks would be surprised to learn that in about 1500 years that would be given as the date of the end of the Roman Empire in reference books. “What can you possibly mean?  The Senate still meets.  Nothing has happened to our house.  I go to the same wine shop around the corner to fill my jug.  The empire done?  Impossible!”

These are some of the thoughts that came to me as I read Jordan Tannahill’s extended essay, Theatre of the Unimpressed: In Search of Vital Drama.  (Coach House Books, 2015.)  Tannahill again lists the many challenges that theatre people know by heart – the audience seems to get grayer, it seems harder to sell tickets, young people who should be likely aficionados of the culture scene give theatre short shrift and find what they do see as somehow not exciting to their lives.  Tannahill also lists numerous exciting new artists and various experiments in the field, not least those curated at his own venue – Videofag.

Tannahill also poses several worthy questions – how are we going to develop new plays?  Develop new actors?  New means of presenting theatre?  And more.

Harry Truman used to say that the only new thing in the world is the history you don’t know.

Back in 1904, Constantine Stanislavsky was experiencing a kind of ennui (?) or a crisis of sorts with the Moscow Art Theatre.  Attendance was down.  The debut production of Chekhov’s Cherry Orchard didn’t meet the same success that previous Chekhov productions had seen.  Chekhov died. Gorky didn’t appear to be of the same caliber of playwright.  The house “style” seemed stuck in a rut – there was a kind of sameness to a M.A.T. production regardless if it was Ibsen or Shakespeare.  What to do?

Also, given the paucity of quality theatre in the provinces, Stanislavsky wanted to start a touring division of the M.A.T. that would send productions out to the corners of the empire and probably start M.A.T. satellites, bringing M.A.T. theatrical art to all of Russia’s citizens and denizens.

Curiously for Stanislavsky, the first name that came to mind to spearhead a project that would encompass some fairly inchoate goals, was Meyerhold.

Vsevolod E. Meyerhold had played Treplev opposite Stanislavsky’s Trigorin in the M.A.T. production of The Seagull.  Meyerhold had been a student at the Moscow Philharmonic under V. I. Nemirovich-Danchenko. However, over time, Meyerhold’s relationship with his former teacher cooled, but Meyerhold’s relationship with Stanislavsky grew.

In 1904 Meyerehold had been away from the M.A.T. for a couple of years, striving in the provinces.  Not only working to make theatre in the provinces where Stanislavsky wanted to take M.A.T. quality theatre, but Meyerhold had been working with new plays – plays by Symbolist playwrights.  Theatrical Symbolism had been a French phenomena through the 1890s. In Russia, however, the heyday of Symbolism was the oughts of the 20th century.

So although we don’t have all of the letters the two men sent each other, they evidently worked out an arrangement so that Meyerhold would come back to Moscow and start a company.

Again, given the inchoate nature of what might come of this activity, there was a question of what to call it.  Meyerhold appropriated the use of the term “studio” to describe the work of this new group.

“Studio” comes from a Latin word that can mean zeal and eager application.  The Italian word can stand for many things – from the physical room in which work happens to the activity of learning.

The new studio theatre headed by Meyerhold accomplished a couple of things.  One, it brought together a group of young artists who otherwise would not have known each other.  Secondly, although Meyerhold seems to have used M.A.T. techniques in mounting shows in the provinces, with the studio productions he seems to have introduced the use of improvisations as a rehearsal technique.

The effort did not succeed.  Stanislavsky had plunged a fair amount of his personal fortune into the studio, but was concerned about getting ruined by a poor investment.  There were artistic disagreements.  Meyerhold realized that he couldn’t really return to the M.A.T.  So, Stanislavsky gave all of the company members two-month’s pay as a severance package.

Meyerhold landed on his feet by becoming the Artistic Director of Vera F. Kommissarshevskaya.  When that quickly turned sour, Meyerhold landed in an even better place – one of the directors of the Imperial Theatres in St. Petersburg.

It was at this point that Meyerhold did two things that are of interest to us at this juncture.  First, he created an alternate identity – Dr. Dapertutto.  Dr. Dapertutto directed a series of short plays and pantomimes in the avant-garde sections of the capital.  These venues tended to be bars and people’s apartments.  During the day, V.E. Meyerhold would be directing some of the country’s most respected artists in plays and operas. At night Dr. Dapertutto would work on staging works from the Spanish Renaissance or a commedia piece – or teaching actor movement at his apartment.

Second, he spent a fair amount of time translating articles on dramatic theory from German and writing his own ideas about theatre should be like.

Once I had a student write on the end-of-semester response form the command – “Teach me something that has some application with what I want to do!”  Well, I was working to do that at the top of my lungs.

The researches that Tannahill describes don’t ring a bell of real newness to me.  Most of the described work tends to have more than a flavor of performance art from the 1980s and 1990s.  I’m glad that folks are doing the work.  And I hope that it feeds into other work in a beneficial way.

But I think there are some models that Meyerhold’s work suggests that would be useful for us to hear.  If we’re interested in the new.

First, I don’t know of many professional directors who experiment on the side – directing small projects and different kinds of plays to learn what secrets might be gained from working with those plays. It’s true that it’s hard enough just finding work that can make a career – particularly in directing.  But I urge the directors who read this (and those what know directors), to think about finding some alternative spaces to do some studio work as directors. Likewise , those of you who have just read this and are thinking smugly, “Well, I always work in alternative spaces” – find a place to do a conventional production of a Neil Simon play.  Find a place to experiment with that which you know not.

Next, think about what you’d like the theatre to be. In the early 20th century everyone and anyone wrote a “manifesto” about what they thought about art. Yes, it could be more than a little precious.  What is your artistic mission?  What is the theatre that you’d like to make?  What does it look like?  How is it different from other people’s ideas?

Particularly for the younger folks who read these words – how do you want to use theatrical art to speak to your age cohort? If neither you nor they want to see another conventional play nor another production of The King and I, then what do you want theatre to look like? Feel like?  Behave like?

Current dramatic/theatre theory seems to me a little like the pre-Christian Jewish prophets – or the Christian Age of the Apostles.   There seemed to be prophets, like Moses or Elijah.  But then as time has gone on, the voices seem to get quieter and quieter. Bold folks like Wagner and Appia and Craig wrote at length about what they thought theatre should be.

To be sure, there are academic theorists who write for journals.  But those articles, I think, leave the practitioners untouched.  I think it would be helpful for folks to articulate what theatre they would like for their generation for the future.

When Meyerhold was experimenting with those plays, he wasn’t workshopping them to death.  I think we need to find a way for playwrights to work with actors and directors in a way that they don’t feel their voice becomes too synthetic. 

I’ve seen this myself.  When I was at a school that had a major playwriting program, the head of that program would give good comments I’m sure about plays.  But I also think there came to be a certain way of thinking about plays that under-pinned all of those comments.  My worry is that our current workshop system can lead playwrights away from their idiosyncratic voice to something that might be smoother, but less interesting.

Where are the American actor laboratories? There are hundreds and hundreds of acting schools in the U.S.A.  Are there any laboratories?  Shall we rest on Stanislavsky’s (and his successors’) laurels for the rest of our days?

I understand as well as anyone the ongoing pressure of producing broadly popular shows and the need of getting butts in seats. 

Meyerhold’s work, however, can provide a structural model of how to go about doing the necessary research to continue finding the means by which we can find appropriate theatrical art for us and our times.

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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

©2017 Nathan Thomas
©2017 Publication Scene4 Magazine





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