Exit the Stage, theses for a carcass

by Julián Mesri

in National Conference

Post image for Exit the Stage, theses for a carcass

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

a) The theater as we know it is on life support. It lays on a hospital bed with an I.V. in its wrinkled arm, barely trickling blood from its empty veins – its eyes have already been closed for years, it has been ages since it spoke, and all it does now is resemble some form of barely stable vegetable. It is a white, wrinkly and whiny form that was once a beast. This is the theater I came to, the American theater I usually find onstage again and again. At its essence, a mere spattering of life, the rest is just the conjecture of experts. We are spending lavish amounts of money on a cheap un-funded hospital bed, life-like makeup for the body and plenty of deodorant to mask the scent of rot. And we all stand waiting for one more gasp, watching the monitor, putting in millions of dollars to keep this lumbering beast alive, buoyed only by the memory. When will one of us be brave enough to pull the plug? To understand that to keep such a wretch alive is only keeping our hopes up. I do not call for an end to theater, or for a new beginning. I come to bury the theater, not to praise it.

b) The problem is not a lack of thought, but a prevalence of too much of a specific kind of thinking. Perhaps we need to stop thinking so much about ourselves and our art and step out of our own echo chamber. If all we’re hearing is ourselves, we only make work for ourselves, and at the end of the day, perhaps we’re just deafened to the world it always seemed like our work was supposed to be in or reflect. Instead we leave a legacy of empty stages. When we finally return to them, let’s remember that the only way to create a culture of theater and theatergoers is to occupy that stage constantly and as much with ourselves as with the world outside of us, for it is outside of us where we find our future audience and future artists that may just want access but right now don’t even know we exist.

c) This is not about dismantling institutions. This is not about the Man or the System. The systematic structure of American Democracy is nefarious, as is the tendency towards oligarchy in this latest incarnation of late capitalism, but there is no need to think that such an overarching system that has guaranteed millions of people in debt for their health, have convinced them that they are perpetually under attack, and have managed to incarcerate its population more than any other country in the world – do not imagine that this nefarious system minds much what a bunch of people who have nothing better to do than put things onstage are doing. The issue of how little we get paid, the issues of getting space to live, the issues of inequality are not theatrical issues – they are national issues, they are issues that affect everyone, and to be honest, theater is the last place where we should be putting the energy to resolve them. Theater most importantly offers people a space set aside for expression and engagement. What it needs to do is make as much of itself as possible and that is it. Creativity is not a matter of choosing the right gatekeepers; it is a means of constant and unrepentant flow of expression. Our theater has died, so who do we look to blame? Is it the system? Is it the institutions? Is it the lack of space? Though there can be many avenues to look to blame, and many are used there is, in my opinion, an overarching disease for all these symptoms. What has killed theater is not capitalism or corporatism; it is stupidity.

d) The stupidity of theater is that of the self-righteous. Our sense of purpose, in this new environment has been infected and swollen till it inflates itself far above what is possible. It is a stupidity that occupies itself with meaning, with importance. It is an infectious stupidity, it is a delightful stupidity, but it is precisely this stupidity that is fatal. It is the stupidity that is the product of listening only to oneself for far too long. When one listens only to oneself, one creates meaning and craft out of people who are too much like you, and consequently creates work that is more and more like yourself – and willfully excludes you from what is so new and exciting about this age, which is the multiplicity of voices. What our stupidity does, is it excludes with the best of intentions. We claim to move forward, and yet every step we take belies a hypocrisy, belies a willful ignorance to realize that this precious investment of time and money is as inflated and bloated as a lesser wall-street executive’s coffer. In doing so we waste our most precious resource, the allocation of space, and embrace a policy of parsimony in the name of ‘specialization’ and ‘development’, which serves to hide a very elaborate exclusion mechanism.

e) What does this stupidity create? It creates an atmosphere of reluctance around the most necessary object that we have to give, productions. We live in constant fear of actually making a production, so much so that we dance around the word. We do staged readings; we do workshops, as if when we make the production, we are creating some untenable investment, when all we have done is make three productions, two of which are usually again exclusive and self-important. What this creates is an unreasonable expectation, and more, it creates an exclusive nature to the production, the very thing that we need to overflow our cities with. It is productions that should be, and ultimately are, disposable. They are fluid, coming in, coming out, and coming back, as they please. It should be an easy item of consumption, so unless we are talking about a specific luxury item like a Broadway show, which comes with its own specific corporate structure, theater has absolutely no excuse to cost more than a movie ticket, and should hopefully be cheaper. Theater has wasted the most precious resource it already has. It has, for some reason, too many people who want to make it, for some reason or another. What do we do with those people? We tell them they cannot make it unless they go to a school that will put them into debt for it, unless they participate in countless menial internships, unless they fundraise for themselves, or scrounge for the few available scraps of grants.

f) We have grown so stupid that we do not see the opportunity around us. We clamor about the lack of space when as I write this so many spaces are dark, unused except for the 2 hours of the day that a production appears. What happens for the other 22 hours, setting aside the week or two for tech? In New York we are surrounded by these slumbering behemoths. In a city that has made space a precious commodity, where families can barely find a place to live, I am certain that there are large spaces in the middle of the city being unused for a good 80% of the week, perhaps holding huge sets that will be thrown away in a few weeks, perhaps just waiting patiently for the next load in. This is space that is being wasted on what is still a luxury product in this city. It could be used for more performances, for rehearsals sure – but it can also be used for classes, seminars, workshops, meeting places, events, things that help create a community not just around a bunch of people who were lucky enough to have access to theater, but to those who know nothing about it, who want to learn or who just want a place to play. All we would need to do is for every single not for profit space in New York City to take one day, at least one day, to offer their space, when they do not have rehearsals, to other companies. In a month we will have created opportunities for countless more people, have brought new work into the world, and have introduced more people (those people’s friends who don’t go to the theater, we all have them), to a new place. Theater is a place that should belong to them too, otherwise, when we say we make theater for the city, or for communities, or use words like ‘public’, ‘national’ or ‘city’, we should admit our very blatant lie.

g) If we are here to cross borders then let us finally cross that final border and face the facts. Swallow our pride and say: what we do is irrelevant, what we do is useless, and everything we feared is true. Then turn around, and keep making it. But let’s stop assuming, stop looking, stop expecting. If we look around we’ll see that there is always a place for performance, there can’t ever not be, but the people who give meaning to those places – those are the people we have kept out. This is why our theater is dead, and we won’t ever find life by breathing into the corpse. It is time to put something new in that space, otherwise we’ll all suffocate in the rot.


Julián J. Mesri is a New York-based Argentinean-American director, playwright and composer. He is the artistic director and founder of Sans Comedia, a bilingual theatre company. His new play, Immersion, a piece about the intersections of language, class and culture in a Brooklyn neighborhood, will debut in September at This Theater in New York City. His production of Lope de Vega’s “Fuenteovejuna” at Repertorio Español won the 2013 Gilberto Saldivar Outstanding Production HOLA Award and two ACE Award nominations for Classical Theatre productions. He served as Artistic Director for the 2013 PEN World Voices: New Plays from Spain festival, bringing together 7 notable Spanish playwrights with contemporary New York City directors and actors during a two day-festival at The Martin Segal Theatre Center He is a Usual Suspect at New York Theatre Workshop, where he was a 2012-2013 Emerging Artist of Color Fellow. He represented the United States in the 2012 edition of Panorama Sur, a seminar sponsored by Siemens and the Goethe Institut, featuring playwrights from all over Latin America led by distinguished Argentine writer/director Alejandro Tantanian. He was also the 2010-2011 Van Lier fellow at Repertorio Español, where he directed Rafael Spregelburd’s “La estupidez” in its New York premiere (ACE nominee, Best Direction) and Calderón de la Barca’s “La dama duende”. Other recent work includes a production of Mar Gomez Glez’s 39 Defaults and an adaptation of “The Weavers” with Pace University’s International Performance Ensemble, which showed in May 2014 at the Accidental Festival in the UK. www.sanscomedia.com // www.julianmesri.com

  • http://prospero57.com/ Craig Fleming

    For some reason, when I finished reading this itemized list of verities, I saw in my mind’s eye the actor Alan Bates at the end of Philippe de Broca’s “King of Hearts”, standing naked and holding a birdcage, asking to rejoin the sublime lunatics after leaving behind the stupid ones.

    Well ranted, sir.

  • JustSaying

    Paragraph (d) holds a special relevance. In the San Francisco Bay Area (I certainly cannot speak about any other region), theater is, as it likely is elsewhere, quite political, parochial, and insular. This feeds into the exclusionary nature. The region’s “theater community” can and often does produce good, even great work; let no doubt shadow this. Nonetheless, I believe part of the current stagnation arises from the aforementioned insularity; in other words, unless one has uncommonly impeccable credentials, and is not of a certain age, participating in that “community” is a very tough nut to crack. I call it the “Andy Hardy Mentality:” one or a few persons decides to put on a show and gathers all of their friends or friends’ friends to serve as this small casting pool—and then builds a rather high wall around the group, making ingress by other like-minded individuals uncommonly difficult. Subsequently, the same names keep popping up in the programs and cast lists; no one will take a chance on new talent unless that talent comes so highly recommended that “if we don’t cast him/her, somebody else will.” (Full disclosure: I am part of that new talent) One can knock on a door so many times before it becomes clear the door will not open, even though one knows the knocks are heard. Acting will always be an overcrowded and highly competitive profession, although many of the reasons for that are easily remedied, and this is one of them.

  • Duncan Thistlethwaite

    I think he got only one thing right in this article: “Theater most importantly offers people a space set aside for expression and engagement.” The rest…? Bad logic and other misapprehensions. According to him, the cause of the death of theater is “stupidity” which he further defines as “self-righteousness.” “Meaning” and “importance,” though delightful, have become infectious, he asserts. Theater is being created for theatrical people, excluding the “multiplicity of voices” available around us. Claptrap. One of the problems with this article is that it’s written for the megalopolis, for Manhattan and Broadway specifically which is about .0001 % of actual theater being produced in this country. His solution to the death of theater: “overflow our cities with theater.” How do we do this? Open all theater spaces one day a week to other house-less companies. This will create a community, because people want theater, want to do theater, even if they do not know this. If we do this, in “one month” countless opportunities will open up for new work and countless more people will get exposed to theater. Bad logic based on impossible-to-create conditions. He reduces the ‘death of theater’ to one thing: not enough houses to perform and rehearse theater in. And look at his last paragraph (g). “What we do is irrelevant, useless.” Bullshit! Theater is too exclusionary, he says, and keeping “those people” (who are they?) out of our physical theaters has effectively killed theater. This is populism to a ridiculous degree. I’ll bet you a high-priced glass of lobby wine Mesri is a Marxist. Theater isn’t dead. Rock and Roll isn’t dead. What’s really happening to both is competition. In my short lifetime, (I remember when my family got our first television) innumerable new entertainment avenues have opened up which compete directly with theater. Folks have only so much time and only so much time to be entertained. And now: post internet, the floodgates have opened and theater is a piece of flotsam in the vast entertainment ocean. Gaming has surpassed the movie industry in revenues. But theater still relevant and engaging. The company I’m in is doing a 450 year old play (The Comedy of Errors) outdoors using many of the same techniques and performance styles used by Shakespeare and his theatrical co-conspirators. Folks really seem to love it, too, crowds have been great and they ‘get it,’ which thrills me. Some things are universal. Lots about what theater is at its basis is universal. It’s not dead. It’s not dying. It’s just being run up against some SERIOUS competition.