The daily world we walk through, that which we participate as players, is unprecedented, uncertain, fluid, questioned, under constant reevaluation, full of challenges, distractions, choices, possibilities, threats, and change. We push, pull, and spin, constantly attending to our roles, becoming adept at reading and adapting to narrative terrains, improvisationally moving through the world as a new sort of Paleolithic hunter gatherers. There are more and more people and diminishing resources. Is it any wonder that games and competition (Jeopardy, Big Brother, Top Chef, Survivor and Bachelorette among them), along with video and live action role-playing games, have become such cultural reference, if not allegory for our time? Out of need, anxiety, or overcompensation we have become increasing self-aware, self-conscious, and self-promoting. Apprehensive in a liminal and ambiguous time of global upheaval and transformation—a time that brings unimagined possibilities and devastation into close alignment—we find ourselves overwhelmed and so allow the creep of social, cultural, economic and political mediation. Disorder seeks order as its tonic, and so we have the rise of fundamentalism, conservatism, and scramble for security and assurances in varied forms.
Technology is no longer a mere extension of human capability but rather has become a mysterious, unfathomable everywhere ether, facilitator and harbinger, like Shiva, the creator, protector and destroyer of a new sort of world. Our humanity, hopes and dreams progressively processed and programmed, we find ourselves shaped by ever more efficient, profit driven corporatized offerings of lifestyles, brands, and products. Like dull and distracted addicts we have become narrowly trained to the convenience and the comforts of the known and predicable. What better way, in an uncertain world, than succumb to the efficient fixity of the known, the quick way to momentarily assuage the feelings of anxiety, isolation and inner emptiness? However, at risk is the flattening and franchising of the imagination, and the diminishment, if not deadening the mind and soul, a death by small cuts of consciousness, aliveness, and presence in the world, sinking into a pleasant warm bath suicide. The above are some of the swirling subterranean themes coursing, like crossing currents in a swelling river, through the narrative of our collective American now.
When performance increasingly shapes the actions and expressions of the everyday and when the presentations on stage are surpassed by events of the world, the function and viability of theatre must be reconsidered. There are those that maintain the status quo, wittingly, unwittingly, reflexively, and stubbornly, recreating and reconfiguring with variations, the conventions, vocabularies and formulas carried from the past. There is comfort in continuity along with a whiff of nostalgia in known patterns and experiences with variations. After all, theatre buildings have been built, organizations, careers, and industries fostered and perpetuated, which stand as monumental testaments to a long and storied rightfulness of place and being. Theatre, bigger, more efficient, more technology, more salacious content, and conformity to corporate ways of being are symptoms of a larger condition, acquiescence and not a response. Rather than an antidote, theatre has been commodifed serving as and extension of a larger ordering system, impervious to the tsunami-like changes washing over the world.
In so many ways the events of the world have advanced so far beyond the narrow, self-limiting and ultimately conservative forms and expressions of theatre. The malaise of theatre is not in its doing—for the need and necessity of theatre is integral to human nature—at issue is the courage to embrace and evolve what lives inherently within. Rather than self-marginalizing, becoming a compliant tool for a larger system, theater can contribute if not lead, becoming a gathering, the collective brain and spirit of a community. This is a radical proposition requiring a fundamental reconsideration of every aspect of how theatre functions and is operated, its objectives, methods, and expressions must all be called into question. Theatre, with its long and storied lineage, from its shamanic and ritual origins to performance art, is first and foremost, a functional and practical human technology able to have real consequences in the world.
In order to do this it must reclaim, with confidence, its central place in the mediation of human affairs.
The need for performance is expressed everywhere, the world is increasingly performing, becoming “performative” because theatre has abdicated its role and been commoditized, and in this way controlled and marginalized from it rightful place at the center of a community. The rise of performance art, immersion and experience performance, dance-theatre, evangelicalism, and the above mentioned pre-occupation with gaming, video games and LARP culture are all expressions, in fits and starts, of a hunger, if not need for real life presence and participation. There is a need in the world the wants to go beyond the artifice, its conflict resolution preoccupations, and the antiquated control-command structure of theatre. Descartes’ dichotomy, of the mind controlling the body is a relic from the 17th century. Yet still, on our theatre stages, the illuminated mind speaks to the passive body that remains controlled, in the dark and in their seats. Our society, culture, our world has moved beyond this form, it stays out of habit and tradition, not out of necessity.
Globalization is a given and with it has come a myriad of challenges and awakenings. The animated world and mind-body-spirit holism of other cultural worldviews and performance, once dismissed, denigrated, and marginalized, now offer not only exotic content to the novelty crazed west, but alternatives to how and why performance exists, its forms, functions, and the worldviews (often holistic) that they embody. The rest of the world views the role of performance differently, yet the western form and expression of theatre, along with its incumbent, economically ensconced production machinery and thinking, remains intransigent to fundamental re-evaluation to make it more vital to cultural and community discourse.
The planet is evolving a new indigenous reality and we are immersed in and performers of narrative of place. No longer is indigeneity simply a framed phenomenon of an isolated geographically specific location, its societies and cultures. We are all part of a complex evolution, aware of one another, seeing, communicating, traveling, trading, clashing and mashing cultures of before, mining them for value and in so doing collectively intuiting a new, never before seen way of being. Humans have remade the world and now the world is remaking us. We are becoming indigenous again, a never before seen indigenous, earthlings. Each day we become progressively aware of the aliveness and fragility of our threatened environment. Each day we become more aware of our relationship, responsibility and the intelligence of animals, insects, flora, the rivers, winds, sky, mountains and oceans and the holism that we are but a part. The world’s cultures interacting have promoted awareness, if not evolution of non-religious way of spirituality. The role of our ancestors, be it genetic or the passing on of cultures, lineal rights, habits, or traumas, is a fact of being. Yet our theatre remains stubbornly human-centric valorizing what is material-objectivist and hierarchically marginalizing, devaluing, or exoticizing all that is not.
Our moment requires a consideration of totality, a holism of being, an inclusive, vibrantly animated community of place. And in this we rediscover a way to understand, balance and heal. Our evolution as a species can be characterized by an expansion and consideration of sensitivities and perspectives—racial, gender, sexual orientation, among them—yet our theatre remains defiantly hidebound in its adherence of the human-centric point-of-view. The legacy of cultural hegemony must be put to the side and a fundamental reconsideration by theatre must be explored. Its content, form, function, and expressions, explored and questioned to find a way to allow the voices of humans, animals, flora, spirits, all the elements of the environment, and ancestors to “speak” in their own way.
Humans, the most enabled and the greatest beneficiary of a place of earth, are responsible for its maintenance and balance. Theater has the ability to shape thoughts and feelings to reveal ways of re-conceptualizing our relationship, role and obligations in creating a world of balance, holistic inclusion, gratitude, and healing. We are participants in of our evolution, responsible to the world for our survival.
Thomas Riccio is a post-disciplinary performance creator and Professor of Performance and Aesthetic Studies at the University of Texas at Dallas. Previously: Professor, University of Alaska Fairbanks; Artistic Director, Organic Theater, Chicago; Resident Director/Dramaturge, Cleveland Play House; Associate Literary director, American Repertory Theatre. He has worked extensively in the area of ritual, shamanism, and indigenous performance, conducting research, workshops and developing performances in Alaska, South Africa, Zambia, Tanzania, Korea, India, Nepal, Kenya, Burkina Faso, and Ethiopia, among others. The Republic of Sakha (Siberia) declared him a “Cultural Hero.” He has published two books; his academic writings have appeared in numerous international journals. He was awarded the Onassis Foundation Distinction Prize in playwriting. He is the Poo Pah Doo of Dead White Zombies, a Dallas-based performance group that utilizes ritual, installation, and immersion expressions. www.thomasriccio.com
Audience (R)Evolution is a four-stage program to study, promote and support successful audience engagement and community development models across the country. The Audience (R)Evolution grant program was designed by TCG and is funded by Doris Duke.