What History teaches us: Crossing Borders and the Survival of the Arts in the 21st Century

by Helen E. Richardson

in National Conference

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

If we look at theatre historically, it has thrived most when it is in the process of crossing borders: the ancient Greek theatre was cutting edge and owed its innovations to an amalgam of many crossed borders­­––from the influences of Eastern forms, cultures, and thought on Athens to the experiments in democracy, which crossed the divides between the established aristocracy that based its power on ownership of land and the upstart urban merchant class whose power was based on international trade and a new cosmopolitanism, and who helped finance the innovations in theatre.  Though the Great Dionysia theatre festival was held in Athens, the subject matter of the plays most often dealt with events and people from across the seas, and the audience was filled with both international dignitaries and local citizens.

The London of Shakespeare was a center of global trade and politics and of theatrical innovation. Many of the stories in the plays of the time took place across borders––from the imperial courts of Persia to the Greek islands, from the courts of Italy and Denmark to the territories of the “New World,”––and appealed to the aristocrat and commoner alike, in which all the world was a stage.

The models that inspired Elizabethan innovation were also international, reflecting the London playwright’s awareness of what was happening in theatre outside of their newly formed nation.  US drama came of age through the influence of European experimental theatre in the early twentieth century and various parts of the world were in turn influenced by the innovations from the US coming out of both the populist and avant-garde movements, which emerged from this cross pollination.

Today the importance of crossing borders is even greater as artists find their income tied to a global audience. Whether in film, television, or live performance, international markets and tourists are an essential source of revenue.  This crossing of borders is in the process of taking another crucial step that impacts the core structure of the professional theatre as practiced today. The border between audience and performer is being crossed through immersive interactive theatre. The borders between actor, writer, director, designer, and audience are being crossed through ensemble-devised projects that also include audience participation (television has enjoyed the beneficial synergy of such collaborative creation for years and, though we may tend to imagine Aeschylus and Shakespeare writing alone in their study, it’s more likely that the strength of their work came from the collaborative demands of their society and theatres as much as their individual genius). The border between live and mediated theatre is being crossed through performances broadcast across the globe and the inclusion of media in live performance.

The lines between theatre, the visual arts, music, dance, and media are blurring as productions become interdisciplinary, as are the lines between the performing arts and the sciences, and between the arts and community action, and theatre and the traditional segregated theatre space, as young artists aspire to participate in a broader society and in fact cannot afford to be ghettoized if they are to survive in the new economy, which demands flexibility, diversity, social interaction, and ongoing innovation.

Over the last hundred years, theatre in general, and in particular in the US, has focused on crossing the boundaries between society and the individual, exposing the schism between societal demands and individual psychological and material needs. This has lead to a significant opening of new territory for self-reflection and understanding of the importance of individual rights in our time. Of course we have more work to do in this area but we must also consider the possibility that the focus of the next generation is shifting and that the price of self-reflection and individuality has been the neglect or even disconnect between the individual and society.

Theatre in the US is worried about the next generation because they present a very new concept of audience, inhabiting a digital landscape so foreign to how live theatre has shaped itself in the US. Will the next generation leave their new-found territory: their affordable, interactive, flexible, mediatized, collaborative, socially networked, entertainment environment, to sit in an expensive theatre and quietly watch a scene unfold before them? Is this what the next generation of theatre makers and audience needs or wants? Or is it more important for them to cross boundaries and discover new forms of collaboration and expression that prepare them for a world where interactivity, interdisciplinarity, flexibility, non-hierarchical, collaborative, mediated and intercultural endeavors are essential to survival: breaking down walls and borders that stifle progress, innovation, initiative, and access; dismantling spaces that are reserved for those few who can actually afford to go to the theatre?

We may lack government support to further new initiatives in theatre, but what we really lack is the investment of people of means and influence in the cultural needs of a future generation: theatre innovation has always depended on those with the means to support it. It’s important that the theatre community and its leaders inspire those with the resources to see the importance of innovation and crossing borders in the theatre. The same is true in terms of inspiring Theatre educators. If we teach the next generations to serve established models that will soon be outmoded and assume that Made in the USA is enough, when a new audience–fed on an Internet without borders and television programming that spans the globe––may find that homegrown is ultimately too limiting, what will be the future of theatre in the US?

Today many of the values that have fostered theatre over the past century are loosing their status in the face of media: the use of well-known, high-priced stars may enhance the corporate entertainment theatre world, from Disney to Broadway, but if the next generation can access those stars any time of the day via their tablet computer­­––sharing the experience with whatever audience they prefer, at home or at their friend’s house––what is to get them to attend expensive theatre at 7:30 PM, where they are relegated to sit quietly next to strangers?  The historical reality is that theatre has always thrived best in an environment where the audience and actors can see each other and interact, and at moments in history when the vision of the theatre is global.

It’s true that we are up against the ubiquitous presence of the media, but are we willing to consider that the models of creation, production, and performance that we prize today, are the very reason for the dwindling of theatre audiences, who need community, social engagement, and the enhancement of the collective experience more than the private moment? Who have found that the mediated experience provided by technology is more effective at enhancing a sense of community than the theatre today? Let’s not be fooled by the last ditch effort at the rhetoric of individualism that permeates our society currently.  As we become more urbanized and more inevitably globalized, and flourish and age far from our immediate families, the phrase “I have always depended on the kindness of strangers” will take on new meaning, and the ability to cross into and form new communities will be paramount.

It’s become commonplace to hear the question “what does the next generation want in the theatre?” But, perhaps, the more effective way is to look at what does the next generation need? If we look at theatre as we would at food­­­­––as a necessity for the continued growth and regeneration of our psyche–: what do we need to nourish ourselves in a society where the oppressiveness of the dysfunctional family is no longer the main concern as we face an emerging infinitude of ways to create our own family of friends, lovers, and co-workers, and the necessity to be flexible in this regard in order to survive in a peripatetic world? What will be the power of the theatre?  Where can we provide an opportunity to cross borders and further the cross-fertilization so essential for the continued survival of life?  Perhaps we can learn something from the Greeks and the Elizabethans by nurturing a global vision; by recognizing our global interdependence; by learning from our corporate competitors that it is the conglomerate (interdisciplinary collaborations), which can stand up to and sustain itself in the face of the profound changes that we are facing today.

Theatre that relies on the star system rather than diversity in talent and community; theatre that assumes liveness to be more valuable than the mediated experience; and theatre that keeps the audience comfortably relegated to their own highly priced territory may find that their values are not shared by the next generation: a generation that is searching for a network of the like minded that crosses neighborhoods, race, income, and nationality; a generation searching for an authenticity that transcends the stage and the media, and that is both personal and communal; a generation that seeks experiences which offer a sense of agency, in a world full of ready-mades, in which the artist and the audience share the space and become co-creators, relinquishing their territoriality, obliterating the borders that we hold so dear and that may snuff the life out of theatre if we are afraid to let go, instead of embracing the potential of new forms and offering new contexts that can inspire the next generation to commit to furthering the craft of the theatre.

Click for a New York Times article about audience demographics.


Helen E. Richardson is an Associate Professor of Theatre, Brooklyn College, Director of the MFA Program in Performance and Interactive Media Arts, www.pima-mfa.info, focused on an interdisciplinary, collaborative, technology-integrated training in performance.  Editor, www.contemporaryperformancejournal, “signals,” featuring articles on international performance. Areas of research: contemporary performance and technology; Theatre in the Age of Globalization; the Théâtre du Soleil; theories of directing; methods of collaborative creation. Artistic Director, Global Theatre Ensemble. Co-curator, producer, and dramaturg of Global Theatre Ensemble’s project on Eliminating Violence Against Women, commissioned by the United Nations, 2008.  Chapter on the theatre practices of the Théâtre du Soleil, in Actor Training by Routledge. Working on a book Theatre in a Global Context: A History. Worked internationally as stage director and trained with Ariane Mnouchkine of the Théâtre du Soleil, and Sotigui Kouyaté of the Peter Brook Company. Served as Artistic Director of the Stalhouderij Theatre Company, Amsterdam’s award winning English-language theatre, an international ensemble of actors creating new works in the 1990s. Currently working on a contemporary adaptation of Euripdes’ Medea, FATIMA, and an opera on American Transcendentalist Margaret Fuller with composer Christopher Drobny.  Artist in Residence, Theaterlab, 2014-15, www.theaterlabnyc.com. Ph.D. in Dramatic Art from U.C. Berkeley’s Director/Scholar program.