Is Our Inherent “Weakness” Actually Our Greatest Strength?

by Sage Lewis

in National Conference

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(This post is part of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders {Survive | Thrive} blog salon, curated by Caridad Svich.)

Since we live in a globalized world, there is an increasing awareness of international work, even in the theater which is an art form that is stubbornly local and requires physical presence. But the mediums that can become completely digitized such as music, film/video, creative writing, visual art, video games, and even dance have an easier way of thriving in an internet and computer-based system of distribution and consumption. Theater refuses to be digitized: We still have yet to enjoy watching a play through our phones, TVs, or computer screens. It also doesn’t like solitude, which is how we consume the internet. Essentially what is great about theater is that it is a live shared experience so it is the opposite of digital media. Digital media can be used to talk about theater, promote it, design it, or even become an important element of our live performances. But so far, no one has figured out how to successfully take the live performance out of theater so that it can be fully digital and go completely online for world audiences to consume on an individual basis. So in terms of crossing international borders and inciting global discourse, how can we take theater’s “impracticality” of physical locality and transform it into an advantage?

Even though the internet, social media, apps, and other modern telecommunications inventions are putting people around the world with similar interests in closer conversation, that doesn’t mean that our planet is now “globalized”. Just because we can effortlessly cross borders virtually doesn’t mean that there has also been progress on our ability to cross borders physically. Surfing the web just doesn’t bring people the same mind-opening magic as traveling internationally. When we chat with people online we generally don’t have the same curiosity, generosity, alertness, and humility that we have when we travel to another continent for the first time and engage with its people. When we’re online we become anonymous equalized avatars that make up an enormous monoculture. This is useful for researching, communication, doing business, networking, staying current and other purposes. But it falls short for creating cultural understanding, having life-changing realizations, learning new languages, going on unforgettable adventures and stimulating our other senses such as taste, smell, and touch. All these require crossing physical borders to be immersed in new and “real” environments. Most people today do live abroad and travel nationally and internationally much more extensively than we did 50 years ago. But until bodies equally and freely traverse international borders, we still won’t benefit from a truly globalized society.

Theater and communities reshape themselves by experimenting with breaking out of the black box and into the streets, redefining the community as co-creator, and designing participatory performance that puts the audience’s agency center stage to radically redraw the barriers between art and people. But to push these practices to the point where they cause the next evolution of 21st Century globalization, I propose that theaters not only bring their performances, but also their audiences on their international tours. For example, create site-specific performances in interesting places around the world for your artists and audiences to engage with the local artists and audiences in creative ways. And when you’re not making or experiencing the art, allow for individualized and group adventure and exploration. In this case, theater can wield its greatest gift, the live shared experience, as a vehicle to get communities to leave their comfort zone and venture into the unknown. Theater can be the reason, the medium, and the facilitator of intercultural exchange between distant cities. Like travel, theater is a multi-sensory, multi-disciplinary, multi-cultural and social art of collaboration and philosophical inquiry. It triggers the same cathartic sensations in our mind as traveling does. However, relatively few theater companies use travel as part of their theater.

What if companies contextualized performance as being so unique and important that you need to journey thousands of miles to experience it? Yes, it’s more expensive but I know many people who would rather pay $3000 to see a site-specific performance in South Africa then pay $30 to see the same play down the block, or especially across their city. People love compelling reasons to leave their boundaries and do something out of the ordinary. Theaters are maybe the best organizations to initiate such experiences because we’re in the business of cultural understanding, adventure, imagination, social investigation, entertainment, and intellectual stimulation. Sometimes I hear producers and presenters explain that the masses don’t come out to the theater because it is prohibitively expensive. It’s more likely that audiences don’t attend because the production isn’t exciting enough. The same people are giving a lot more money to the manufacturers of televisions, computers, phones, video game consoles, HBO, and Netflix.

To move our financial practices from surviving to thriving we might need to radically re-conceptualize theater for a globalized 21st Century. The world has changed too much to keep expecting that the same paradigms of a black-box theater will be as exciting as it was one hundred years ago. I’m not suggesting in any way that all theater needs to start being presented thousands of miles away from its home audiences to get their attention, I am arguing that we need to be more creative, daring, and unpredictable in the way we produce immersive experiences for our communities. What is it exactly that we dominate as an art form and how do we turn that into our greatest strength that everyone wants instead of our weakness that holds us back? What does globalization look like for the theater, has it been activated yet, and might it be different for us than for other mediums?

Sage Lewis is the composer and director of Project Por Amor. For more information visit Sage’s composer website or his Cuban arts organization.