Is theatre real?

I finally got my hands on a copy of Authenticity: Brands, Fakes, Spin and the Lust for Real Life by David Boyle from Robarts Library through interlibrary loan. (Thank you interlibrary loan!) This is not a scholarly book but is rather a popular journalistic look at what Boyle sees as the new call for authenticity in contemporary life, especially in the affluent West, post 9/11. Boyle tracks the shifting desires of a group of consumers in search of a more authentic way of living, a group he calls “The New Realists.”

Although he acknowledges that “the real” is a shifting target, sometimes including completely opposite commodities or experiences that are perceived to be authentic for different reasons (e.g. wine of an excellent vintage produced from a master vintner in Bordeaux vs. do-it-yourself wine-making in my own basement), it comprises 9 main elements.

Leaving aside the resurgence of real elements (elements that I am thinking about consistently calling “documents”) in performance for the moment, what about performance in general (if there can be such a thing) as itself an authentic object? Can the theatre experience be tested against Boyle’s 9 elements?

At its heart, the basic premise of theatricality is a kind of lying or pretending — of a potentially very dangerous kind that has upset anti-theatricalists for millennia. So on these terms, theatre is a kind of a fake. But given that those are the ground rules that we accept in the creation of the theatrical experience, can that experience be an “authentic”  one, one desired by Boyle’s New Realist seekers?

1. Real means ethical. Boyle describes this as a desire for moral coherence. Does theatre do any harm? I would like to say generally no. On the whole, theatre is (and has been historically) markedly oriented toward virtuous intents, showing virtue rewarded and vice punished. Even in the more moral ambivalent modern era, the intent is still mainly for social justice and improvement. Where theatre might fall down might be in the upholding of conservative values and promoting outdated views. Although again, generally, theatre tends to be ‘ahead’ of the curve presenting usually progressive ideas. It is not ethical in essence but is mostly so in practice. So, yes, theatre is (mostly) ethical.

2. Real means natural. My first thought here is no — theatre is entirely produced or manufactured. It is not like Boyle’s examples of organic food or natural childbirth in this way — things that just are.  On the other hand, one might make the argument that the impulse to tell a story and pretend to be someone else for a while is quite natural. Aristotle makes the case for the naturalness of mimesis in The Poetics.

3. Real means honest. Well… hmm… as mentioned already theatre is essentially a kind of lying, but… the intent of that fictional trickery is not deception. Theatre is honest about its fictionalizing. The intent of theatre creators for the most part is to illuminate some kind of truth for the audience. There is a desire for direct communion.

4. Real means simple. The examples that Boyle gives include the Slow Food movement, simple recipes, taking things back to basics, no frills. Is theatre simple? Yes? It can be. Again the core requirements are pretty simple — an actor to do something, an audience member to watch, a space that we call a stage (Thank you Peter Brook.) Certainly there can be extreme elaborations on this core with large casts, zillions of costumes, moving lights and rotating sets — chandeliers, helicopters. I think that in the same way there can be simple food, simply prepared and elaborate food, elaborately prepared, theatre can sometimes be simple and sometimes not.

5. Real means unspun. There is marketing of theatre — there are ads, and promotions and packages. It is (usually) a commercial enterprise. Even if it is not-for-profit, it is still a commodity to be sold.

6. Real means sustainable. Like almost any enterprise, there are some resource costs in producing theatre. Indoor venues need light (lots!) and heat (or air conditioning). Sets and costumes are built — few of which are stored after the production and many of which are trashed (or partly recycled). In the grand scheme of things I would say, the production of theatre does usually expend resources but relative to other projects, it is relatively sustainable (or could be).

7. Real means beautiful. Yes. (I suppose we can have ugly theatre, but…) Theatre production has an aesthetic component, concerning itself with its situation in space and place and with the communication of ideas visually. It is crafted.

8. Real means rooted. Yes. Theatre is, for better or worse, a local activity. It is very hard to transport and to share with large audiences. It can be done — think Phantom of the Opera global franchise, but generally not. Each individual production is rooted in the immediate moment of a particular place. Also, theatre is deeply traditional with the core art form extending its genealogy many many centuries.

9. Real means human. Yes. I think we can easily make the case that theatre is a human scale endeavour. With a live human audience and live human performers, it is strongly grounded in human bodies and human emotions, thoughts and issues.

OK. That was a bit hard…Perhaps there are levels of a more or less “authentic” theatre experience. I can imagine a simple, stripped down theatre  production with no packaging, no spending of resources, rooted in the community. Clearly the potential for theatre to deliver an “authentic” experience exists.

Question: What elements need to be cultivated for theatre to successfully present an authentic experience? How is authenticity connected to the successful achieving the goals of the performance? Why is authenticity a good thing for theatre? (Is it?) Is documentary theatre more authentic than “regular” theatre on these terms? Which elements are increased?

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