Reflection on Contemporary Theatre

By Abrahim Harb

Theatre allows us to become more empathetic and expands our thinking of the world and the world view of others we agree or disagree with. It agitates us to activism. It motivates us and acts as a catalyst for change. It is a sense of escape, but not really. Usually it has one overarching takeaway and scatters little nuggets for you to discover on your own. Theatre is absorbed into the mind differently by each person. It allows you to wander into the unknown or further delve into the familiar.

Theatre allows you to be immersed in the lifestyle of the past or grounded in modern times. It can bring you into the action and/ or break the fourth wall - or alienate you with a firm line between the actor and observer. It can remind us we are not alone. Theatre is evolving and always different. It can be a one hit wonder or cult classic. Sometimes, it is rooted in surrealism other times it is rooted in realism. Theatre is a place where an assemblage of diverse people gather to tell a story/stories of another group of people. It one sentence, it opens us up to human experience, whether it is something familiar or unfamiliar.

The reflection will focus on four movements: Futurism, The Modern Tragedy, The Harlem Renaissance and Epic Theatre.

All of these movements are something that I haven’t had any education in and I believe they are very important to further understanding theatre for my personal use. As a writer, I believe that the discussions, artists/ thinkers, aesthetic movements and plays in the movement are something I should have in my arsenal of inspiration.
(1) One of the artists/thinkers in the Futurism movement was F.T. Marinetti, his 11 points of art were fascinating, especially point # 10, “We want to demolish museums and libraries, fight morality, feminism and all opportunist and utilitarian cowardice” and point # 2, “The essential elements of our poetry will be courage, audacity and revolt”. It was mentioned in class that this era was filled with thinkers who liked to write manifestos of what theatre should be. This was meant to change the way theatre was created, but I think it is counter intuitive to be a catalyst for change. They should have written manifestos and created pieces of theatre/art to portray these changes. In my opinion, it is one thing to talk about change, but doing it is another thing. That is why this era stands out to me. It links modern ideas with avant-garde ones. As our reading for that week states, “the futurist theatrical synthesis will not be subject to logic [...] it won’t resemble nothing but itself, although it will take elements from reality”.

I believe "bobrauschenbergamerica" by Charles Mee has elements of futurist theatre. It is futurist because the scenes are short, impressionistic glimpses of life, although narrative is lost in between, the most vital is presented. It can also be categorized under avant-garde because these fragments (or vignettes) are also between life and art and are often monologues. It also veers into nostalgia, with the serving of food that also breaks the fourth wall. It can be related back to, "Waiting for Lefty" by Clifford Odets, in a sense, the vignettes tell a story about a labor strike, however, they differ because Odets play is a series of related fragments. Whereas, Mee’s play situates the fragments somewhere between reality and art.

When we performed futurist theatre pieces in our curriculum, it was the most fun I have had in class. Not to say any other activities weren’t, but this one helped me the most. Some groups chose to use the texts provided, whereas others quickly wrote their own. We didn’t worry too much about rehearsing and we focused on creating the ideas we want to portray. Futurist theatre in the moment wasn’t my favorite at all, but it has become a favorite.

(2) Next,  the modern tragedy. At first, "Death of a Salesman" and "All My Sons" by Arthur Miller are both modern tragedies. The central characters are both stuck in this one mind set and can not be changed, in the end, they both kill themselves, by “accident” and via suicide respectively. They are both serious in nature and reflect the American dream/ being patriotic and the main characters (the father) are holding hope for the future of their children and in "All My Sons," for the return of his son. Although they are in two different time-periods and styles, the protagonist of the story slowly lose sanity. In "Death of Salesman," the style is less realistic, in the sense that it is open to interpretation--is Willie alive? Are these hallucinations? Is this how Willie thought his life was? For me, "All My Sons" is clearly Realism as a style, but "Death of a Salesman" is more poetic, less firmly rooted in Realism as a style. 

When it comes to movies, I prefer a comedy person, but when it comes to plays I prefer tragedy and comedies. Tragedies tug at your emotions and live shows aid the experience. Tragic heroes are very flawed and once they realize the delusional they have been living/ believing will never come true, they usually end the suffering, believing that the only way to restore order, is by leaving earth. In "All My Sons," Joe Keller (a self-made business man) has made this huge error in his judgement that his son will return home from war, after being missing in action. It is a universal theme when someone loses a person and they keep hope that they will return. However, most lose all hope and try to move on. Joe doesn’t lose hope and in the end, when he finds out the company Joe worked for produced the dysfunctional plane pieces that were used on the plane his son flew, he loses all hope. This is when his moral flaws bite him in the butt, Joe decides he can no longer live life, knowing that his son most likely died and was never recovered.

In both plays, achieving the American dream consumes their daily lives. It leads to their downfall and Miller is criticizing that concept through these two pieces of theatre. I think Miller is trying to point out that people should be on a journey of self-discovery, if that means achieving the American dream, let it be, don’t chase a dream, because you feel like you have too.

(3) The Harlem Renaissance was an era in theatre where African-Americans were at the forefront of a movement. W.E.B Du Bois and Alain Locke were interesting theorists to discuss and the movement coincided with the Civil Right Movement which made African American theatre all that important (in this time, the term “New Negro” came to prominence as well), as another forum to spread the word, without propaganda (for Locke) and with for DuBois. Black population swelled in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. The African-American arts needed to flourish. Locke represents the tangible, fluffy, can include white authors, if they properly portray black history/expressionistic end of the spectrum and Du Bois represents the dense, propaganda filled, about us, for us, by us. Learning about Jazz and African-American art forms is always exciting and the Harlem Renaissance lasted from 1918 to 1930’s, right in the middle of great depression)

Speakeasies rose to popularity during the Prohibition where liquor was illegally served and there were elaborate dance numbers performed by black performers. Usually white people were in the audience and in my opinion, this was a perfect medium for black performers to educate white folks on the woes or being African-American. Most famously, The Cotton Club was decorated to look like a Southern Plantation. After Prohibition, many of the New York clubs stayed open and became famous spots for actors, performers and Hollywood starlets. Listening to pieces of theatre from African-American artists/thinkers such as Langston Hughes and Billie Holiday is lovely, they have a vibe that is subdued and powerful.

(4) Epic Theatre is very important. Bertolt Brecht is the most influential and wrote using Marxist views. "Good Person of Szechwan," made an impression on me. Epic theatre differs from realistic theatre and that is why I think that I learned the most through this. In Epic Theatre, the spectator is not asked to become one with the action and believes the human is in the process of changing always, but each scene is episodic. In contrast, realistic theatre puts the spectator in the middle and uses an Aristotelian structure where each scene builds towards a climactic, ending.

Brecht was the easiest to learn from because he likes to alienate his audiences, to remind them they are watching a play and not to become too enraptured in the action; in the same vein, he likes to educate/ be political and uses metatheatrical techniques. This technique of alienation is very interesting because it completely changes theatre. The fourth wall doesn’t exist, placards and projections are used, there is harsh lighting and songs interrupt the actions. Theatre can also be metatheatrical without elements of this, but they are some techniques Brecht used. With that being said, Charles Mee’s original stage direction have two spots in "bobrauschenbergamerica," where placards are used and the lighting is a bit harsh, for the Stage Center production, but remains within the realm of typical theatre lighting techniques. There isn’t one narrator, but each portion of the show has a monologue, therefore the person onstage explains a change, before an abrupt transition to a different vignette.

The Kristin Hunt directed and Stage Center Produced version of "Miss Julie" by August Strindberg uses alienation effect perfectly by situating lines that are monologues said to one-self, making them a direct address to the audience and I also believe the focus on a food performance aids the show by further bringing you into the emotions of the play, while at the same time reminding the audience they are only watching a show.