Thursday, July 9, 2020

Savory Taṇhā in Performance (Thursday)

Brian & Zyrece
Yesterday the New York Times published an essay with the unfortunate headline, Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence by Laura Collins-Hughes. Journalists and columnists don’t usually get to choose their headlines, there are people who specialize in that -- and a good thing, too, try writing one.

Unfortunately, while the mourning may be real, the phrase “digital theater isn’t theater” is a statement I have to take issue with. And why wouldn’t it be? I am currently the writer/director of a piece of live, if digital, theater.

Collins-Hughes accurately describes the thrill of live theater so; “Bodily immersed in an experience, sharing a single space, we emerge at the finish of those performances imprinted with sense memories.” Yes, we do. It’s why some of us chose this path, as opposed that of movies or television. It’s why I have spent the better part of two decades working on behalf of students to bring live performance right into their classrooms, another mission which has been suspended for the duration.

“Immersed.” That word makes me shudder. Remember immersive theater? An entire popular genre rendered suddenly extinct. They may try to open Broadway, but Sleep No More isn’t rousing any time soon.

And yes, we have enjoyed the recorded dramas that has been made available to us, especially the highly-anticipated Hamilton movie. But they really are just movies, aren’t they?

Hillary & Zach
“Even the Hamilton movie,” Collins-Hughes remarks, “a thrilling and democratizing testament to the power of stage performance, can’t capture the soul of theater, because that soul lives in the room.”

We saw it, we may even have watched it at the same time as LMM and the entire company the evening it debuted, joining in on a nation-wide Twitter commentary, a virtual lobby in which we could compare notes and share our thoughts and feelings.

But even in spite of this opportunity to commune over a piece of theater, even one as professionally executed as that, it was still only the document of a live performance, and not the thing itself.

Which brings me to Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble), produced by Cleveland Public Theatre to be performed via Zoom, and enjoyed by a live audience of viewers. Not to be archived, not to be seen again. To heighten that sense of immediacy, each night different members of the five person ensemble will be performing different roles from the same sixteen scripts.

We had our first performance tonight, and it went very well. We had a wonderful audience, somewhere between thirty and forty people. They get to see and greet each other before the performance, and also after. It is true, audience mics and cameras are turned off for the performance, so we miss out on any possible laughs or other audience reactions, a necessary sacrifice.

The post-show discussion, however, was very nice, and a warm validation of what I was hoping to accomplish. They commented on the connection between actors, and the great intimacy. In rehearsal I emphasized how, in spite of its many limitations, this medium provides an opportunity for intimacy and closeness that a live performance in front of a hundred audience members cannot, and that we should take advantage of that.

One commented on how though each character has a unique voice, they are still people that you know personally. And that some of them are you.

Finally, it was so great to see colleagues and friends I have made who I have never met in person, but with whom we have shared work, audience members watching from Virginia, Los Angeles and elsewhere, and having the opportunity to share this work with them. Oddly enough, I am currently in North Carolina.

And I challenge you to tell me what we're doing isn’t theater.

Cleveland Public Theatre presents "Savory Taṇhā (sixteen short plays performed by a rotating ensemble)" featuring Anne McEvoy Zyrece Montgomery,  Zach Palumbo, Brian Pedaci & Hillary Wheelock with remaining performances Friday, July 10 & Saturday July 11, 2020 at 8:00 PM.

Source: Digital Theater Isn’t Theater. It’s a Way to Mourn Its Absence (The industry’s show-must-go-on smile masks a harder truth: that there is no substitute for the live interaction between performer and audience) by Laura Collins-Hughes, The New York Times (7/8/2020)

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