(Photo by Chris Studley. Pictured: Nina Freeman, Ann Farrar, Puja Lalmalani, Allison Youngberg, Morgan Spector and Claire Brownell in American Conservatory Theater MFA Program’s 2005 production of The Caucasian Chalk Circle.)
(An Ideal Theater: New Visions is a blog salon inspired by the themes and several prompts from Todd London’s An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. Learn more here, and if you would like to participate, please email Gus Schulenburg.)
What is your vision of an ideal theater?
My ideal theater is never dark. There is something to experience every day of every week. Activity! And when on nights it has nothing to share of its own work, my ideal theater gives over its spaces for either cheap or free to poorer theater groups to share their work, so long as they don’t break anything—though it wouldn’t be a bad thing if they rearranged the furniture a bit.
My ideal theater has to ask the patrons to leave its café/bar at closing time, because they’ve sat there longer than the running time of the performance discussing and debating it.
That means that my ideal theater presents work that is well done, unexpected, and matters—both formally and substantively. Most of that work is made by local artists. Some is made by national artists. And some by international artists. All of it is “theater,” though some people might say it’s “a play,” while others will argue that, really, it’s “dance,” or “dance-theater,” or “performance.” And eventually someone at the table will say, “Who cares what you call it. Was it good? Bad? Interesting? Or, ideally, all three at once!”
My ideal theater is affordable to low-income students, seniors, non-artists, and artists. And they sit where the people who make bank sit. There is no class segregation in my ideal theater.
My ideal theater is in the US, though not in NYC, and is fully subsidized by both the government—i.e. the tax-paying public—and a large endowment, because my ideal theater is in an ideal America where the citizens have FINALLY understood that theater IS necessary, for the reason that community experiences that exercise our creative and critical thinking, imagination, physical senses, and capacity for compassion, are as necessary in their way as hospitals and schools are in theirs.
Why is this vision necessary now?
This vision is necessary now because society is evermore rapidly speeding toward an evermore digitized experience. To be clear: this is NOT a vision that demonizes the new Internet media era. Rather, it is a vision that deals with it—by understanding how the Internet conditions our thinking and feeling, working with that new way of thinking and feeling, while also providing a crucial alternative to it. This is a vision of a social space where people ACTUALLY experience connection, rather than only virtually experience it. This is a vision of a creative space where direct confrontation with difference is understood to be good and life affirming. This is a fundamentally analog vision in an only recently digitized world, allowing us to keep one foot on the ground to help us better scale the incredible virtual heights our new media era offers.
What was the genesis of this vision?
It’s either the chicken or the egg, I can’t say. Possible feathers and bits of shell might be found in the work of Zeami, Meyerhold, Mnouchkine, Bausch, Forced Entertainment, Jobs, and Gates, to name a few. Might be worth cracking open Clurman’s The Fervent Years as well.
What steps have you taken to see this vision come to pass?
In the grand scheme of things, maybe even only embryonic steps as of yet. But even these are motored by the best realization I ever had: that I know nothing, and that with any luck I will always know nothing. Something I do know, however, is that it’s time to leap. These morning hours of the 21st Century are not a time to take steps. The world is leaping.
Beyond that, I try to always build my art on the foundation of my ethics and values, always asking myself if I’m working well, if I’m working in unexpected ways, if what I’m doing matters. And I share my vision with everyone I can, when and wherever I can—in cafes, classrooms, kitchens, lobbies, at intermissions, production meetings, rehearsals, donor events, on public transportation, in emails, in Tweets, in person, in person, and in person.
And, my five senses are ever on alert for those chasms I must attentively leap to make this vision a concrete reality I can see before me and not just in my head.
What challenges have you met along the way?
Cynical naysayers who dismiss me as “idealistic,” as if ideals are naïve and not the high-octane fuel of the soul.
Sticky moments of overactive self-doubt.
My own assumptions about what I “should” do, how a good career “should” unfold, or what I “should” receive for my various efforts.
Who has influenced you in your pioneering work, or what theatres have inspired you to create your own? In other words, what is your lineage?
Some of those artists I consider formative to my personal lineage are mentioned above in the question about genesis. In addition to those, I’m compelled to mention these people and organizations (for one reason or another):
Aeschylus (the power of simplicity)
Philip Arnoult (the power of introductions)
Steven Berkoff (relentlessness)
Anne Bogart (stealing well)
Barbara Damasheck (curiosity)
Anne Teresa De Keersmaeker (order and impulse)
EXIT Theatre (non-curated openness)
Hebbel Theater am Ufer (aggressive openness)
David Lynch (excavating the subconscious)
Pete Miller (trust and experimentation)
Bricine Mitchell (a lesson in friendship)
Shakespeare (the brilliance of messiness)
The Shotgun Players (making a home)
SITI Company (creating, then maintaining)
Beth Wilmurt (a passion for empathy)
Robert Wilson (form without compromise, substance without soapboxing)
They’ve each left significant marks on who I am, how I think, and how I choose between possible actions in response to the people and world around me.
What would the world look like if the vision, values and praxis of your work became widely adopted?
WHEN the vision, values, and praxis of this work become widely adopted, the world—by which Americans typically mean America, and in this context so do I—will be a more considerate, compassionate, sometimes strange, borderline dangerous, in any case good humored and fruitfully contradictory place.
Women and men will have less cause to count numbers and more cause to consider one another.
Young people and old people will hang out, and neither will forget or dismiss the other.
People in their infinite shades of brown—from blinding white to pitch black—will recognize that yes they are at once the same AND different, to the extent that they will even argue about that difference and sameness and yet go home feeling more open rather than more certain.
Speaking of arguing: people will understand that arguing and fighting are two fundamentally different endeavors—that we argue to understand, and we fight to win, and that people who win fights lose the most.
When the vision, values, and praxis of this work become widely adopted, America will not mistake itself for the world, and Americans will not mistake themselves for Jesus. Americans will recognize themselves in some—not all—of the faces of those seated around and performing before them. And those in whom they do not recognize themselves, they will nevertheless not disregard but engage and work to understand—because that’s more interesting, difficult, and exciting.
What are your own “revolutionary ideals”?
I expect these to continue to evolve. But today my fistful of revolutionary ideals include:
Aim for perfection, don’t achieve it.
Play the game first, understand it second.
Don’t think outside the box. Burn the box down.
Make it well, make it unexpected, make it matter.
Mark Jackson is a theater maker whose diverse range of work in theater, dance, and performance has been seen at various venues in and around San Francisco, as well as Denver, Washington D.C., Japan, the UK, and Germany. Some awards and honors include the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation German Chancellor Fellowship, playwriting residencies at the Djerassi Resident Artists Program and English Theatre Berlin, the Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award, a Magic Theatre / Z Space New Works Initiative commission, and the San Francisco Bay Guardian Goldie Award. Mark’s writing has also benefited numerous times from the generosity of the Tournesol Project, a granting program for the development of new work. He has been a company member of The Shotgun Players since 2010, and is a graduate of the San Francisco State University Theatre Arts Department. Click on Mark at www.artstreettheatre.org