What If…We Stopped the Habit and Found the Necessity?

by Nancy Keystone

in What If

What if we stopped the HABIT of theatre and found the NECESSITY for doing it? A Gut-Check.

(I mean “habit” in the sense of repetition of acts, without questioning the whys and wherefores, without paying attention, without an honest impulse at the center.)

Most of us came to the theatre out of a need, possibly a compulsion, an obsession—we had to do it. Probably, initially, we just wanted attention. Hopefully at a deeper level there became a need to make something, through collaboration, and through that, to express some truth about the human condition. But these days, I don’t often feel that necessity when I go to the theatre. And it’s no secret that most people in our country don’t, frankly, give a shit about theatre. And I wonder if the apathy on the part of the audience is a response to what is on the stage, as much as it’s a symptom of the lack of theatre-going tradition and inadequate value placed on art and artists in the culture at large? In many cases, I think we take the theatre for granted, the initial vitality has drained away, and theatre has simply become a habit. It has lost the fire in its belly.

From Joseph Chaikin The Presence of the Actor
“Our training has been to be able to have access to the popular version of our sadness, hurt, anger, and pleasure. That’s why our training has been so limited.

Shock: We live in a constant state of astonishment, which we ward off by screening out so much of what bombards us…and focusing on a negotiable position. An actor must in some sense be in contact with his own sense of astonishment.”

These ideas are relevant to artists of all stripes. How can we renew our sense of astonishment—in the theatre, as well as in life?

Here’s what I believe is necessary about the theatre and what I feel is so often missing:

Humor (the real stuff)
Search for meaning

To wax a bit highfalutin: I believe that art is the lifeblood, the animating spirit of civilization. As civilization seems to be on the respirator, we sure do need some art now. As people working in the theatre we have a tremendous responsibility and opportunity here, and we ought not to waste it; we ought to be very aware of what we’re doing and how we’re doing it. From the programming, to the making of the productions, to the community engagement, to the way artists are treated, we need to make our actions and the work count. If the end of the world is already here, we have nothing to lose.

The economics of the theatre do not support a healthy environment, nor do they promote excellent work. Economic necessity is too often what drives the choices that are made, and these choices often come into conflict with the larger purpose of our work. This trend is fairly transparent and sometimes outright cynical. Programming is ruled more by bottom-line considerations than by any essential artistic impulse, and it appears that these compromises have become the default position, they have become part of the habit.

Is the work truly engaged in what is important to the people in the community, to the artists making the work, to the administrators in the offices?

What if a company did that project they always wanted to do (but kept putting off for one reason or another)—that project that people were truly thrilled about doing–and devoted the necessary time and resources to doing it, even though it scared the shit out of the staff and board.

What if theatres did fewer projects in a season, in order to devote more time and resources to the ones that they did do? Or allotted more rehearsal time for certain projects—why does every production have the same schedule?

Time to prepare. Time to create. Time to engage the audience.

We now have the ability to fly across the country in a few hours, and to be in contact with anyone, any time, any place, which allows us to do many more things than we ever could before. In recent years people have become so busy that preparation and collaboration have become increasingly truncated. People are working on so many projects at once, in many cases just to earn a subsistence-level living, that we can barely make it into the room together prior to the already too-short tech, and then there are the negotiations to leave early in order to race to another project. There is no time to think, no time to discuss, no time to respond, no time to adjust. It’s all we can do to throw something together as we dash through. Yes, we all know that the miracles happen at the nth hour, but is this our best effort? Why are we doing this? Surely this can’t feed us as artists, it certainly doesn’t pay the bills, and it usually doesn’t yield very compelling work. And if we think it doesn’t matter, that it’s not necessary to be more present and rigorous than that, then perhaps it’s not necessary to do it at all. Because I think the audience feels it on a cellular level, and that’s one of the reasons they don’t feel the need to go to the theatre.

What if, as individual artists, we said “no” to a project every once in a while. What if we took more time to create better circumstances for our work, to prepare more in depth, to work more closely with our collaborators, even time to be in the world, so that we had more fuel and passion and experience to bring to our work, instead of operating in an echo chamber. How about time to take care of ourselves and our loved ones?

Where is the larger, underlying Vision? What are we doing, on a daily basis, to support and advance that Vision for our work and our lives, both personally and institutionally? Maybe it takes breaking out of the habitual ways we do things and striking out on a scary new path.

What if we found the necessity for theatre as THEATRE—not a TV show on the stage—but something that expresses the gorgeous nature of living bodies in 3-dimensional space, the muscularity of metaphoric ideas that encourages a robust work-out of the imagination, that embraces the essence of how stories can be told through this particular medium.

Obviously we don’t hit home runs every time, nor even most of the time. And there is the heartbreaking truth that even under the most ideal conditions the work somehow doesn’t live up to its potential. But it seems to me that we would have a better chance if our intentions were aligned to the necessity of what we’re doing.

What the hell am I doing?
Why am I doing it?
How am I doing it?
Is it necessary?
Does it feed me as an artist?
Does it engage the community?
Does it fuel the theatre institution and field?
What if I did it differently?
What if I did something different altogether?
What is the level of integrity I am bringing to the work?

What if we didn’t let ourselves off the hook? What if we truly made an effort at every level of artist and institution, with every project, to dig a little deeper, be a little braver, a little less easily satisfied, if we broke out of the habit and astonished ourselves and the audience.

If we believe that the theatre is necessary, then what if we proceeded in our practice as if our lives depended on it?

Nancy Keystone is a director, designer, playwright, visual artist, and founding Artistic Director of Critical Mass Performance Group in Los Angeles. Her latest work with CMPG is Apollo, which will be represented at the Prague Quadrennial. In addition to directing and designing productions around the U.S., she works in opera, festival events, and film. In 2006 she was co-design consultant for Portland Center Stage, developing features for four lobby spaces. She was 2010 Calderwood Fellow at the MacDowell Colony and 2003 recipient of TCG’s Alan Schneider Director Award. Other grants include: NEA, APAP/Doris Duke Foundation, TCG/Pew Charitable Trusts, Center for Cultural Innovation, Alfred P. Sloan Foundation, Drama League of NY, California Community Foundation.


  • Max Shaw

    If people stopped doing their regular objective in the theatre industry people wouldn’t be making any money any more. there wouldn’t be a need to go to watch the plays. The characters for the play wouldn’t have a reason to be there and do what they do to entertain the audience. If people found the necessity for it they would have to go see plays just to see them, they wouldn’t need to go all the time just sometimes for a little while.