“The Shock of the New”, right? The attempt, the desire, the struggle to make something new, in the hope that it will shock others, and even (especially?) ourselves, into response. Authentic, unmediated response. Experiencing art, and thus the world, in a different, exciting and possibly even revelatory way. An era of traumatic and thrilling technological innovation, certainly. The telegraph! The train! Mustard gas! Relativity! The zipper! Moving pictures! The production line! The airplane! The splitting of the atom! The satellite! TV! Napalm! The photocopier! Facebook! M-theory! YouTube! The way we live now changes and changes and changes, one is confronted daily, hourly by the new. And plays or performances are made in response. Animals react (and people do too, violently, or by breaking or shutting down), but humans respond. Theatre, creativity, as a necessary quality of the human. Yes? But a play written or performance created twenty, ten, three years ago is so full of archaisms and outdated references as to seem merely quaint. To seem other. The play you are writing now will lose relevance before it is finished. How to respond to that?
High art and low, commercial and non-, whatever the context, whatever the imagined dichotomy might be, artists strive to innovate, to introduce the new, to achieve impact. This impact is in and of itself value because it is so fucking hard to make impact living and working when everything is changing, everything is new and then new again, and the rate of that change increases geometrically. Our nostalgia horizon diminishes yearly. One thinks back to that innocent age twelve years ago, before 9-11 (seven years ago, before Twitter? two years ago before Hurricane Sandy and the realization that global warming has happened? That time before blogs and Theater 2.0?). Society in ten years (less? five?) will be unrecognizable, much less the world our children inhabit now, their brains functioning differently than ours in response to the world we have made for them. They live in a future we predict but will never know. Our innovations are obsolete even as they are made.
So, anxiety. Stress stress stress. How to make something new in the context of this form, theater or whatever, something in the context of a tired old unplugged and offline form that could possibly respond adequately much less begin to live up to the tremendous engine of transformation that is contemporaneity?
Shakespeare, the great, inspiring and oppressively preponderant greatgrandaddy of all English-language play makers was nothing if not an innovator. In subject, in language, in responding to the paradigm shattering innovations of recent centuries (the rate of change was slower, but the impact was perhaps greater as Europeans woke up slowly, in a bit of a daze, to the realization that the earth was round, royalty not divine, floating insignificantly on the margins of a vast universe…). Shakespeare the radical innovator, the incandescent writer (and not the dreary “great bard” ). So there is that to live up to. A tradition, and expectation, of making it new. Innovation is not, in and of itself, an innovation, of course, not new. In fact, it is quite traditional. Not so shocking.
Innovation. The introduction of something new. Something that wasn’t there until it was. Is. Something created. For better or worse. Innovations are not inherently, in and of themselves, good.
Of course, most innovations fail and pass unremarked. Wrong time, wrong place. Advantage isn’t taken.
Something truly new would very likely be unrecognizable, and almost certainly unpremeditated.
Innovation likely happens when there is, in the self, a real and committed willingness to change. To change perspective, to change beliefs and paradigms, to change in ways that are unanticipated. It takes discipline and commitment to be, and remain, open to change.
Innovation is fostered by collaboration. Ben Krywosz taught me that collaboration is what happens when two or more people interact to create a shared understanding that none previously possessed or could have achieved on their own.
I would go farther to say that, in true collaboration, the end result, whatever it be, is truly unknown. Sure, we may know we are making a play, we think we know what it’s about, we know the text, even the style, perhaps, (although we might not know any of those things!) but we really don’t know what it’s is going to be until we do it, and are open to what happens when we are in process – that is, to me, collaboration. And that process carries the potential for innovation.
Something that theater, impoverished as it may or may not be, does, at its best, is create the possibility for a spectator to change. To become, if only for a moment, new, to renew, to break through. This potential exists in virtually any performance, although it is rarely achieved. This potential exists regardless of form or content. It can, and does, happen by accident. The innovation might be a particular interaction in the gazillionth production of The Glass Menagerie, or the approach to a number in the crassest of jukebox musicals, or it might be the most delicately constructed nuance in the final masterpiece of an artist who has dedicated an entire life to a discipline of creativity. It is the incredibly potent energy within any production of any play.
Craft, rigor, discipline, dedication, intent, mission. The art is in achieving something approching consistency in making this kind of breakthrough. So that it is not mere chance.
Innovation. We are confronted with a problem, and it is in the unexpectedness of the nature of what confronts us, of the specificity, even if we saw it coming, that prompts a response, and in that response is an innovation. We can do no more than create the conditions for creative response. By working hard at craft, by relaxing, by channeling passion, by collaborating.
Michael John Garcés is the Artistic Director of Cornerstone Theater Company, a community-engaged ensemble in Los Angeles, where he most recently directed Café Vida by Lisa Loomer, as well as writing Consequence and Los Illegals. Recent directing credits at other theaters include productions at Woolly Mammoth (where he is a company member), South Coast Repertory and A Contemporary Theatre. He directed Marc Bamuthi Joseph’s red, black and GREEN (a blues), created in collaboration with artist Theaster Gates, which has been presented at venues across the country such as The Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, REDCAT and BAM.