In The Belly of the Beast-Night #2

Hello, and welcome to the Belly of the Beast.

Once, I made a decision.

Now, I live in what 94% of Ohio residents consider to be the worst place ever.

But I don’t know. I kind of like it.

The entries are categorized according to the number of nights I have spent in this city.

What follows are a series of highly contentious statements. Enjoy.

Night #2, 4:49am

I just moved to Los Angeles. I moved here because it was the farthest thing away from anything I had ever dealt with before, personally and artistically. In order to create, watch, or talk about theatre in the land of film, this is what we need to know.

Until the creation of film, theatre was the presiding human method of both entertainment and reflection.

Entertainment because we are fascinated by our own nature, and we are drawn to the examination of ourselves for humor and disgust.

Reflection because through performance, we are able to watch others who might be ourselves and relate to them while noting their actions as things to do or not do.

Right now, film accomplished both of these things with greater precision and commanding focus than theatre is capable of.

Film trumps theatre in the following ways:

1.) It demands less of the viewer than any other art form though absolute directing of our focus. Because of this, we consider it a leisure activity, something that we want to do.

2.) Film is infinitely reproducible. It is the first art form that can almost instantly reach a global audience. Via the Internet, it can also be accessed from anywhere on any device at any time.

3.) Film is perhaps the best vehicle for delivering a message. Because the camera directs our eye so specifically, it is impossible not to take in exactly what the director wants you to know.

4.) With the advent of DVD’s and later Internet video, film has become a reality that we can control. We may pause, stop, replay, ect the art form to suit are own need.

In each of these ways, film has the complete jump on theatre. Theatre cannot focus attention like film and thusly requires more focus from the viewer, making it less of a leisure activity. Theatre cannot reach billions of people across the globe, and because it cannot be accessed by technology, theatre is not in the constant rotation of modern culture.

Theatre was originally created out of community ritual. The community views the players and through their travails the audience is made to reflect on their own lives. Gaining meaning in the form of entertainment, such as Greek Dionysian festivals, or reflection as in the theatrical religious rituals of African tribes or the medieval Catholic Church.

Film advances these drives by making the messages of the performances clearer and by sharing them with the world.

So, how can theatre retain any relevance in a cinema-dominated world, she asks at 5 in the morning from her drafty Echo Park apartment?

Theatre has two things that film can never have:

1.) Theatrical performance is by definition impossible to replicate. Because theatre is living humans in performance, and because it is impossible in the physical world for an action to be repeated exactly the same way twice, each performance is completely unique.

An actor may make a difference choice of line delivery, a light may drop from the rafters, someone may break a bone. Each performance is being created as the audience watches it. In any piece of theatre at any given time (excepting those with recorded bits) each moment holds infinite possibilities. Anything could happen. We don’t, in fact, know what is coming next. (Of course, most days, we do know because most theatre today is very terrible and boring and completely disregards all of its inherent strength, but that’s another column entirely.)

By the time it is recorded on film, everything has already happened, there is no longer moment-to-moment infinite possibility. A recording, then, is not a true replication of the performance itself. The original and authentic piece is the play while it is being performed not the finished product.

This is important because:

Having its definition as its creation makes theatre the closest art form to life, which is also being created as it is lived. As film provides us with an outside representation of time that is closest to how we actually perceive it, theatre allows an audience to watch reality.

2.) Theatre is the only art form in which the audience plays a pivotal role in the performance itself.

If someone yells “fire!” during a movie, and the audience flees the theatre, the film and the performances in it, go on unaffected. Any actor will tell you that, depending on the responsiveness of an audience, their performance can change substantially on any given night. In improvisational theatre, obviously it changes completely. Theatre needs an audience. Other than to make money, film does not.

This is important because:

1.) Humans are more likely to respond and care about something which they helped to create.

2.) Performance is the only art for in today’s world that does this.

However, theatre’s contemporary descent into obscurity is not entirely due to film.

The majority of the theatre seen by people in this country is community theatre. It is the starting point for countless artists in and out of cities across the nation. In its ideal state, community theatre is a product of its community: speaks to its community, employs and engages its community. The very first theatrical productions were borne out of community ritual, celebration, and communal experience. Theatre is necessarily a part of its community, and it is this truth that has been lost in the swill of big budget musicals, the idea that any piece of theatre worth seeing exists only on the New York stage. This is nonsense.

And yet, community theatre itself is not blameless. I have seen some of the worst theatre of my life on community stages. Tired, irrelevant plays, put on in order to cater to a subscriber base that is literally dying. In general, community stages have failed to recognize what an incredible opportunity for involvement and enrichment they can create simply by producing work that is relevant to their own community.

By engaging young people, showcasing their work, recognizing that theatre can be more than a mildly entertaining drawing room comedy in which people who lived 70 years ago discuss politics that I have absolutely nothing to do with.

I think that most community theatres fail to recognize exactly what they are up against. Yes, subscription is down, yes, youth enthusiasm is low, but this is not something that can be fixed merely by putting on the same material and then marketing it on facebook. We need a structural change within American community theatre. Theatre produced by the community, created for the community.

Because we desperately need theatre. We need a human connection. We need empathy. And in the face of rapidly encompassing virtual reality, we need each other!

So, what then, can we do?

Here, in the very heart of Film Land, I am thrilled to discover that there are hundreds of companies of all shapes and sizes, dedicated to making a stand for theatre in the belly of the beast. They are re-branding, re-structuring, creating new ideas, involving people of all ages, colors, and creeds. We are here to get the word out, to let you know what’s happening when, what’s worth your time and money, and what deserves your support. This is Bitter Lemons, and we believe that Los Angeles has an important theatre community, a community that should be united, whether it likes it or not.

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About the Author: Jen Davis is a stranger in a strange land. Following a life of wandering and re-location(where am i? WHO AM I?) she made a decisive (drunken) decision to forsake all things holy and move to Southern California. She recently received her BA in Theatre while narrowly avoiding a minor in philosophy. Jen has staged plays, mimes, sword fights, and cakewalks throughout the Pacific Northwest, most recently as Associate Artistic Director of Toy Boat Theatre Company. She seeks to revitalize and re-establish the theatre as a necessary part of American life through producing, writing, and generally crying out to anyone who will listen. Her marketable skills include learning to juggle, baking, and persistence.

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