Author: suther1

Technology given a bad rap in the theater world

We’ve all heard it before. Someone in the room starts complaining about how technology messes everything up and destroys human connection. Usually the person complaining either doesn’t fully understand how to use technology or doesn’t know its full positive impact.

But theater artists especially are guilty of this technology-bashing behavior. Too often have I witnessed conversations between theater artists that have devolved into complaints about how “People have no attention span anymore!” and, “It’s hard to keep audiences engaged when they are on their phones!”

It does seem to be true that as technology becomes more prevalent in our society, the collective attention span shortens. Whether or not this bodes well for society does not really concern me. After all, it will continue to occur with the increasing development of technology and I can’t change that even if I wanted to.

It’s the penchant of theater artists to blame technology for what they see as artistically illiterate audiences that concerns me. These bemoaning artists have adopted a privileged attitude that audiences owe a play their attention and that an inattentive audience is somehow morally deficit. Neither of these has ever been the case and never should be.

The digital age, as with any other age, brings its societal changes. But it isn’t killing the arts, especially not the theater arts. It is simply a shift in the norms of the modern era. People are obviously still interested in performance and studio art, as indicated by the still incredibly vibrant artistic scenes across the world. While the nature of the modern theater audience might be changing, the theater artist should not expend energy complaining about this change, but rather adapt the theatrical form to this new audience.

Technology forces the theater arts to adapt, and not entirely in negative ways. In fact, the theater has profited immensely from the technological advances of our time. Sound design has blossomed into a fascinating and popular field, lighting design has achieved greater simplicity and flexibility, and forays into on-stage projection have yielded promising results. As theater artists it is our duty, and quite frankly our only option, to accept the changes of our time and carefully guide our art into new directions. At the end of the show, we don’t make theater for ourselves. We make theater for an audience to see. If our audience doesn’t prefer us to their phones when in our theaters, we need to recognize this warning sign that we are growing stagnant in our creativity.

Honestly, if a play cannot pull an audience from their phones it isn’t really worth doing. Theater artists must always fight for people’s attention: This has never not been true. If Facebook is more compelling than the live story being told on stage, exactly how compelling is that live story? There will always be those weird people that will still habitually check their phones – those corporate types that can’t be disconnected for more than 15 minutes, or the odd ducks that read books during plays. But if ever an entire audience ignores a play, it speaks volumes about the play itself. We should be crafting live stories impossible to discover anywhere else. If we cannot, we shouldn’t be doing theater.

Another part of the reason artists bemoan technology is out of fear of losing attention, and I understand this sentiment. I won’t pretend I haven’t felt and acted similarly at times. But the proper response is not to blame a societal change too monumental to control, but to adapt to it. It’s true that adaptation can feel extraordinarily sad. It seems like a loss to need to change the way things are and move away from some of the old traditions. But with every adaptation, just as an old tradition is retired, a new tradition is established. And it’s a beautiful thing to be able to take part in the establishment of a new tradition.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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Which genre is superior?

In a summer frenzy of impulse purchases, I bought around 30 plays considered part of the classical theatrical repertory. I read plays like Ghosts by Henrik Ibsen, Long Days Journey Into Night by Eugene O’Neill and Mother Courage and Her Children by Bertolt Brecht. All of these plays are dark and tragic.

I found that many of the famous playwrights tend to write tragedies. Though, of course, some such as Moliere and Wilde break this trend with their definitively humorous writing. But this seems to be a comedic exception to the tragic rule.

Why should tragedy be considered the superior genre? I have yet to hear a compelling case arguing that it is somehow morally superior to feel sad rather than happy. Though happiness is still considered frivolous by some, this is a masochistic, antiquated and foolishly stoic idea. Laughter is not only advantageous to personal health, but also a beneficial communal practice that unites people of all backgrounds and identities.

Even if the argument is less moralistic and more concerned with effective conveyance of theme, I still disagree. Heavy subjects should be explored through art, but I question if it is always necessary to treat these subjects with tragic seriousness to convey their depth. For every comedy that fails to convey any sort of theme, there has been a tragedy that did exactly the same. Occasionally, I think there are themes that comedies are actually better equipped to handle. For example, lampooning social issues in comedic ways can be quite effective. When people laugh, they often have to ask themselves what they are laughing at and why. Putting social issues on stage forces people to think about them, even through laughter. Comedy can point out quite easily the ridiculous situations in which any society finds itself.

However, few plays are strictly tragic or comedic. Most combine certain elements from each genre. Many tragedies have no trouble mixing comedic scenes in with an otherwise tragic plot. For example, the first act of Romeo and Juliet reads much like a comedy. Romeo is not a romantic; he’s a child who doesn’t know how to cope with his feelings. His love for Juliet follows merely from their proximity, not any sort of special connection between them, and his friends mock him ceaselessly for forgetting them and deifying his crushes. However, when Mercutio dies, the mood of the play takes a dramatic turn, ending in the infamous tomb scene. The light, comedic mood serves to contrast the bleak ending.

And to a certain extent, comedies also use tragic elements. For the majority of comedies, audiences do not laugh throughout the shows. There do need to be some tragic moments that contrast with the bits and jokes. For example, in The Taming of The Shrew, Shakespeare includes Katherine’s strange, moralistic monologue at the very end. It isn’t comedic, but it belongs in the play just as much as any other scene.

Theater must mix and accept both comedy and tragedy and let stories be what they are: reflections of humanity. Comedy, while traditionally underappreciated, has just as much power as tragedy does. Comedy is not frivolity. Tragedy is not superior.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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Russian theater is nothing to rush through

Last month, I did the typical Ole thing and studied abroad for Interim. The class was a study of Russian theater, viewing 21 plays in both Moscow and St. Petersburg over the course of the month. Before this trip, I certainly did not recognize the importance of Russian theater, and I had never heard of any Russian theater artists apart from Stanislavski and the two Chekhovs (Anton & Mikhail).

Actually, some part of me thought that the history of Soviet control on arts would have been enough to seriously cripple theatrical development, rendering contemporary Russian theater behind the times or immature. But after a month sitting before Russian stages, my mind has opened up to the beautiful and incredible artistic world of Russian theater.

One of the most significant aspects of Russian theater involves its relationship with the government. In Russia, almost all theaters are state-sponsored, which means that theaters can charge much less per ticket than U.S. venues. And because the average Russian can easily afford a theater ticket, almost all of them consistently go to the theater.

There is also a dark side to state sponsorship, however, in that the Ministry of Culture retains quite a bit of control over the theaters. For example, the Ministry of Culture has periodically evacuated controversial theaters over “bomb threats,” and forced theaters to stop showing productions deemed offensive or overly critical of the government.

But censorship has also become an integral part of the nature of Russian theater. Many artists in Russia believe that it is actually why their theater is so inventive; playmakers reason that if they want to broach contentious subjects, they must find ways to do so indirectly in order to escape the grasp of the Ministry of Culture. Consequently, not only was I wrong in my condemnation of Russian theater, but I criticized censorship, which is central to the success of modern theater.

Another aspect of Russian theater that I appreciated was the general attitude toward the text. Russian directors often take scripts or literature and make bold, new decisions. They subtract the things they deem unnecessary and often add in their own bits. This happens in the U.S. to be sure, but not nearly as much as in Russian shows.

For example, we saw three shows from director Yuri Butusov, who has a habit of adding incredibly loud music and messy stage elements (i.e. water, ink, paint, piles of furniture, etc.). He had an especially interesting take on Anton Chekhov’s play, The Seagull, in which the actors mixed up the order of the show and played certain scenes multiple times. Butusov himself even jumped in at certain points to dance centerstage. His style slapped me across the face and commanded me to pay attention to the stage activity, even though I could not understand the text.

Another example: the set of Hamlet at the Alexandrinsky Theater in St. Petersburg was comprised of stadium bleachers facing away from the audience. The show only lasted an hour, but included characters running up and down the bleachers and through the audience at incredible pace, and a significant change in the mood of certain scenes from the traditional play.

I long for the ability to be able to direct a show as moving as Butusov’s, or as radically different as the Alexandrinsky’s Hamlet. I believe that stories are meant to be kinetic and changeable, as theirs were. It is fascinating to see new takes on old plays. Perhaps there are no new stories, but there are as many ways to tell a particular story as there are people in the world.

I think the reason we go to the theater is to see how a story is told rather than the story itself, and the Russian habit of telling stories in distinct ways is admirable. Butusov’s production of Flight had scenes in it that were not even mentioned in the script. But they told the same story that Mikhail Bulgakov did. The storytelling was what kept the audience engaged.

I took inspiration not only from directors, but from actors as well. The actors we saw were incredible and behind their talent lies a long process of education and training. Actor training schools are widespread, and they are very involved. Actors take courses in academic regions as well as specific theater classes. But at the end of this process, students do not possess the training to take on professional, well-paying jobs. They have been trained as actors and have gambled on their success in the field. The courage to take this plunge is admirable, and encourages me to begin my own acting career.

However, at the end of the day, the question remains: is Russian theater better than American theater? I answer no. Though there are many benefits to Russian theater, there are also downsides.

For example, Russian theater is built on the repertory system. Every theater at any given time has somewhere around 20-30 shows rehearsed and ready to perform. Every night of the week, each theater shows a different play, usually with a set monthly schedule. This can be incredibly exhausting for theatermakers, not allowing actors or technicians much free time at all.

That being said, it is a tad problematic for me to judge two entirely different cultures in that way. I do, however, want to note the differences and wonder what could transfer between the two.

I recommend learning Russian, booking a ticket to Russia, visiting some Russian theaters and sitting back to wonder at the magic of human expression, and the different methods of storytelling that exist. But if you have no intention of following my suggestion to explore the world of Russian theater, perhaps you can at least you can say you have experienced it vicarously through me.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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Theater not bound to stage, also found in nature, self

Tripping across the crunchy pebbles, I stubbornly refused to pull my phone out of my pocket to act as a flashlight. I slowed my pace, feeling the atmosphere of awe so present around me. Loathe to make more unnecessary noise or disturb my friends’ stargazing with the bright light of my phone, I slowly fumbled my way to an open spot. Sitting down on the gravel, I was instantly, acutely aware of every sharp point and uncomfortable edge of stone that pressed into my legs. But tonight it was worth it. Tonight I would not complain and shift uncomfortably. Tonight I would settle into my seat, strain my neck looking as deep into the sky as I possibly could, and observe the phenomena of which I had only been made aware 20 minutes prior. Tonight I would get to watch the total lunar eclipse.

The atmosphere on campus was quite special. As I walked from Regents to my lunar viewing spot, I passed a huge number of people gathered on the quad, all gathered in hushed reverie. For the most part, nobody was moving, and all were looking upwards. Though the scene was strange, one only had to look up at the moon to join the crowd in silent contemplation and understand the hushed voices and upturned eyes. When I finally made it to my viewing place, I stayed there, staring at the moon as long as I could. I forgot the people beside me, the time, and all the many things I had yet to do that Sunday. I lost myself in the moon’s slow movement across the sky. This eclipse was cosmic theater, and for that night, St. Olaf was the silent audience.

One of the many strengths of the theater is its ability to evoke strong emotion in people through storytelling. To see a story told on a stage, wherever that stage may be, can be powerful enough to make people giddy and joyful, pensive and moody or just shocked. Communicated emotion is incredibly powerful, and subsequently dangerous, since its application can be misused.

The lunar eclipse evoked a sense of awe. Watching the moon travel the sky and shine a brilliant red served to remind those watching of the grand scale of the universe, and the incredibly intricate and huge systems at work so far beyond our sight. When confronted with the vastness of the world we inhabit, awe seems like the only possible emotion with which we can respond. The story told by the lunar eclipse is one of a universe that keeps moving and working despite any help or hindrance from humanity. The brilliant colors and remarkable visuals of the moon would have been there had no human audience members been present, and they certainly didn’t need any human help to be astounding in appearance.

Since the eclipse, I have been trying to go stargazing more often. Enjoying the spectacle of the cosmic theater always helps me ground myself. I forget myself and my homework. The beautiful vastness of the sky above me, representing inconceivably vast distances and billions of trillions of places I could never possibly see, kindly accepts my human concerns and invites me to sit and watch. I always leave the experience in a state of quiet assuredness in my meaningfulness and a desire to create something beautiful, or try to somehow capture the beauty I witnessed.

At St. Olaf we belong to a rich tradition of performance. With Christmas Fest every year, performances of our numerous nationally recognized ensembles, the yearly performances of the Theater and Dance Departments and the host of student organization performances that happen each year, we do not suffer from lack of theatricality. Some of these performances inspire awe and joy in people like nothing else can. One of the most powerful memories I have is that of participating in Christmas Fest last year and contributing to the sheer power and magnificence of the performances. But once in a while we need to step out of the observation of human performance and revel in the wonder of natural performance. The effortless beauty and vitality of the world around and above us, manifest in the lunar eclipse we all so silently beheld grants us a certain introspection.

Call it meditation, call it prayer or call it simple theater-going. But go out some night. Bring friends, hot beverages and warm blankets. Go to the natural lands, Thorson hill or the middle of the quad. And just sit. Or lay down. Look up at the sky and see the light that has travelled incredible distances to your eyes. See the brilliance of a shooting star, the incredible beauty of an eclipse. Let the universe bring itself to you, and accept the gift it gives you.

suther1@stolaf.edu

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