The theatre under the sand

by Caridad Svich

in National Conference

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(This post is a reflection of the 2014 TCG National Conference: Crossing Borders and the two blog salons curated by Caridad Svich,  {Art | People} and {Survive|Thrive}.)

Lorca said it first: a theatre of blood and sand. Perhaps Euripides said it before him in documents we may never surface. I am thinking about Lorca and sand and blood again as I reflect upon the 2014 TCG National Conference in San Diego.

The imminent and most concrete sand that comes to mind is the one that lined the theatre “floor” of the world premiere of Herbert Siguenza’s El HENRY (a Without Walls production collaboration between La Jolla Playhouse and San Diego Repertory Theatre) staged under Sam Woodhouse’s direction at SILO’s outdoor space in the East Village. A fairly faithful (in terms of structure and intention) adaptation of Shakespeare’s Henry IV, EL HENRY presents its audience with an imagined future where water wars pit rival Chicano gangs against each other in a quest for power. The impassioned performers, including Siguenza in the Fausto/Falstaff role, strutted through two hours, first under natural light, at the show’s beginning, and then under artificial light as darkness descended, of a coming-of-age, mentorship and power story, the trappings of which we are familiar from Shakespeare’s tale. The outdoor space at SILO (an arts/community center complex) and the sandy “floor” of its stage, upon which a motorcycle and three classic cars made elaborate stage entrances, offered a fascinating space for and of reflection within and outside of this production’s imaginative design.

Firstly, about the nature of sand itself and/or its theatrical facsimile. Messy, unstable, ever-shifting, sand is the floor of theatre, even when it is not part of a play’s scenic design. We witness in the theatre, in live performance indoors or outdoors, the shifting particles of our own desires, dreams of imaginative play, regard for and embrace of history, and the atomized molecules of language(s) visual and verbal in tactile interplay with bodies rooted to the earth and sea.

Secondly, about the nature of blood. In El HENRY, many a stage fight (choreographed with panache and skill by Edgar Landa), took up the second act of the play, where, as you may recall from Shakespeare’s text, Prince Hal has to prove his mettle in battle. The stage blood in EL HENRY was mostly virtual: graphic blobs of paint rendered as images on multiple TV monitors that bordered a section of upstage center. The blobs signified the blood spilled in battle sort of like “ka-pows” in comic book action scenes. The virtuality of the “blood” denoted absence. This is all a game here. It is not real. Yet, I couldn’t help but think about the blood and sweat of the performers before us. Not virtual. But very much in the flesh. Again, a reminder of essential element of theatre.

Moreover, this blood, which we can know think of as also the blood of labour, the blood of writing and art-making, calls up why we gather together sometimes in conferences such as these to discuss what may sometimes seem as the “cleaner” elements of theatre business, conducted under and sometimes outside of corporate models:


audience engagement (aren’t we always by the nature of what we do in theatre always engaging with audiences?)

equity and parity (best practices),

and budgeting.

I want to think about the mess and blood of the decision-making processes and problem-solving that goes into such discussions and action-able “items,” and how it is not separate from the art-making process and the art itself, ever shifting under the lights, ever showing us who we might be and are.  In fact, considering the nature of blood lost and won, the cost to our very flesh, which such decisions eventually will yield is crucial. For every “item” managed on a list of items in a theatre system, there is someone/thing that will be affected by it. Let’s look that person in the eyes. Let’s touch their hands. Let’s embrace them. However imaginary sometimes the audience OUT THERE may be, however down the hall a fellow administrator may be, however across the country or in your neighborhood a practitioner may be, they are HERE. In the blood-space (rather than the meat-space) of what we do.

In Lorca’s time, the theatre of open air, the theatre of blood and sand, was the theatre of resistance on a poetic and concrete level. Making theatre, even indoors under, shall we say, less troublesome circumstances than those of doing theatre outdoors (having to do with ambient noise, controlling body mikes, if and when used, setting up stadium seating and/or ground “seats,” etc.) is an act of resistance. It is an act of engaging with culture, citizens, and ideas. It is in resistance to what at any given cultural moment may be the “norm.” Performance and social efficacy go hand in hand, even when as a practitioner, the efficacy of the art may not entirely be in your front view window, as it were.

Why think of Lorca now? After all, it’s been a long time since his untimely passing at the hands of Franco’s henchmen. So much has changed in theatre-making since the mid-1930s in Spain and Latin America (Lorca’s chief arenas of production during his lifetime, and dare I say, even now, despite his stature as one of the greatest dramatists in the history of theatre). But has it?

I do not ask this question out of some willful naiveté, but rather to simply consider that although the mechanics of theatre-making on a technical level have indeed changed since Lorca’s time (and here I am using Lorca as only one reference point with full awareness that many other seminal figures could be brought to this virtual table), the essential concepts about the necessity of theatre in society – as ritual, as healing, as civic engagement, as a place of transformation and witness, as a place of addressing spirituality, faith and what we could describe as the sensible (in Ranciere’s definition) – still hold. The beauty and strangeness of the form – despite social media, software platforms for script-writing and archiving, and cultural evolution – is that at root what it calls upon in us – as witness/participants/spectators (in ethical engagement with work) and makers is the same.

How do we resist?

How do we struggle?

How do we live?

In what ways do we behave toward one another and why?

And how are we choosing to live on this planet and why?

Every theatre-maker will go about addressing these essential concerns differently. Every theatre either living with the art, housing the art, installing the art object, or sharing the art will need make decisions about what it means to keep these concerns at the forefront of the work (and here I use the word “work” in a much broader sense – to encompass the making of an art piece, the running of an arts organization/community space, the presentation of an artwork, and the delicate and lively nature of welcoming and educating fellow citizens about a specific artwork or a larger body of work over time built and made by different artists).

It is easy to become distracted in this day and age, though I would hazard that likely other times posed their own unique challenges for art making on all levels. But these questions cannot slip away or get pushed to the back burner because they are the blood, you see? The blood underneath the sand of our theatre.

Consider the precarity of our lives. Consider how we truly use words like “power” and “ambition,” and what we mean exactly when we utter them into being. Consider the raft we are ALL on in this grand enterprise across many miles and countries and languages and aesthetics and much else when we say Theatre or Live Performance.

I rather think this raft suspended as it is upon the sea – mighty, stormy, unpredictable (despite the tides), strange, unsettling, polluted, cleansing, rejuvenating, healing – is worth holding onto. I don’t call it a ship or a boat or a schooner or a yacht, mind you, and I do so with good reason. Precarity, you see? A raft reminds us of the precarious nature of our lives.

The raft that holds asylum seekers over many oceans (metaphorical and not) on this earth,

the raft that holds our imaginary dreams,

the raft that may not make it, may fall apart, may crack under the burden of the many things we place upon it,

the raft that leaves us standing on a plank in the middle of the ocean sometimes as we wave for rescue or cling to hope or simply wait for the tide or another raft to find us,

the raft that eventually meets the sand and upon whose history (multiple) we build our theatres of the mind, heart, blood, and seas

ever returning,

to the same waters,

yet finding new ways to tell stories, spark imaginations, and remind each other we are here.

Caridad Svich received a 2012 OBIE Award for Lifetime Achievement in the theatre, a 2012 Edgerton Foundation New Play Award for GUAPA, and the 2011 American Theatre Critics Association Primus Prize for her play The House of the Spirits, based on the Isabel Allende novel. She has edited several books on theatre including Out of Silence (Eyecorner Press), Trans-Global Readings and Theatre in Crisis? (both for Manchester University Press) Divine Fire (BackStage Books), Out of the Fringe (TCG), and Conducting a Life: Reflections on the Theatre of Maria Irene Fornes (Smith & Kraus).