In 1995, Danish directors Lars van Trier and Thomas Vinterberg (later joined by Kristian Levring and Søren Kragh-Jacobsen) issued the manifesto known as Dogme95, an attempt to "purify" filmmaking by doing away with gimmicks and special effects. Embedded in the Manifesto was a "Vow of Chastity," 10 guidelines for purification, such as "filming must be done on location," and "the sound must never be produced apart from the images or vice versa."
Like most manifestoes, this one was ignored, debated, breached (by Vinterberg himself, when he confessed in "The Celebration" to having covered a window in one scene, thus introducing special lighting), and parodied (check out Dogpile95's website).
But also like most manifestoes, underneath the rhetoric and cheek it identifies a core artistic problem in cinema: how to make movies something other than just a financial exchange with an audience member, how the filmmaker can, in the words of the Vow, "force the truth out of [the] characters and settings…by all the means available and at the cost of any good taste and any aesthetic considerations." One can argue about Dogme95's aims, means, and the films made under its guidance, but that person would be hard-pressed to deny that movies today, by and large, hardly try to force the truth out of anything in fear of having a low box-office return on opening weekend.
Theatre has its own need for purification, though the divide is different here than it is for cinema. Lately I've been seeing and reviewing a lot of what would be deemed "experimental theatre," and some of it has been very interesting (see Qreviews). For instance, I recently saw "Frequency Hopping," which details the remarkable friendship, in 1940, between the actress Hedy Lamarr and the composer George Antheil (who is best known for his "Ballet Mécanique"). Together they came up with a way to jam radar-guided torpedoes (yes, it's true!) by shifting frequencies so rapidly that the torpedo has nothing to home in on. (The first incarnation of their machine used a piano roll to change between 88 frequencies, a mechanism that came right out of Antheil's desire to create a machine-based music that could be perfectly repeated with every performance). While the government never used their invention, it became the basis for cell phone technology, so that billions of people can make calls without cancelling out each other's frequencies.
The production had a lavish technical presentation, with a bevy of player pianos and other percussion instructions connected by computer and a method (which was new to me) for projecting 3D images onstage, images that the actors could move through and around. In addition (because it had a composer as a central character), it had a few song-and-dance routines as well, which the two actors pulled off with panache. As one review stated, "The entire experience is a feast for the eyes and ears."
Which was, from another angle, the reason why the show, at least for me, quickly became something I watched rather than something that engaged me. While the creators tried to establish a frisson between Hedy and George in order to anchor the abstract in the emotional, there was never any real pull between the characters because the writers had given them no secrets to hide. All subtext became text in the work so that the audience was never in any doubt about the attraction they felt for each other and for the scientific work they were doing.
This, then, is the divide I see in theatre, between "theatre" or the "theatrical" and the "dramatic" — the presentation vs. the gravitational. In screenwriting class, we were told that "if a scene is about what the scene is about, then you're in deep shit" — meaning that if the scene lacked subtext, if it lacked a subterranean flow that pulled us in one direction while the surface flow pulled us in another, then the scene lacked drama, "punch." All the audience is doing is watching an unfolding rather than an uncovering, neck-and-neck with the velocity of the scene rather than a little behind and working to catch up.
As in "Frequency Hopping" (though this can be said of many of the pieces I've seen recently), subtext becomes text, mystery becomes declaration, and in the end, we have a piece of theatre rather than a dramatic work.
If subtext-turned-to-text defines "theatrical," what makes the dramatic "dramatic"? David Mamet once said (and this is a rough paraphrase, taken from memory) that all great plays are, at heart, mystery plays, and that the characters in them are trying to say the unsayable. This is why a good dramatic writer uses all the tools in the dramatic toolkit, such as revelations, reversals, ironies, misdirection, silences/rests, surprises, and diversions in order to create both the mystery that needs to be voiced and the struggles of the characters to voice the mystery. (Tom Stoppard, in an interview with Leonard Lopate on WNYC, said that all dramatic theatre is a "series of ambushes upon the audience," and, as with all good ambushes, the best ones work when they are complete surprises to their victims.) Once an audience either gets ahead of the story or is simply viewing the story as opposed to trying to solve it along with the characters, then the production has shifted from a dramatic to a theatrical production.
There will always be a place, and a need, for the kind of production labeled "experimental" or "avant-garde," for the efforts of theater creators to shake up the settled and de-barnacle the ordinary. But, for me at least (and I may be in the minority here), once the cleverness or brashness wears off (such as with the holographic projections in "Frequency Hopping"), there must be some other movement underneath to draw in the audience member, some mystery that needs solving, some unsaid thing struggling to be said, or else the production becomes all show and no heart. There must be a push-pull between upper and lower currents that will make us sit up in our seats and make the piece stick in the brain after the lights go out.
Dogme95's effort to "force the truth out of [the] characters and setting" was another way of saying this: abjure the tricks of the trade in favor of as unmediated a presentation as possible of the tectonics between the text and subtext of the characters' struggles to make sense of the yet-to-be-sensed.
My Dogme(fill in the year) would say the same.