Theater Around The Bay: Conversations With Hannah

Stuart Bousel shares snippets of a conversation with Hannah Gliksten, a British theater scholar who interviewed him for a piece she is writing on mythology, new work, and American Theater.

Hannah: What are the most major changes you see taking place in theater practices here and what might explain them?

Stuart: The biggest shift I am seeing is a shift from the current regional theater model to the more localized, boutique theater model, or what I call Farmer’s Market Theater. Essentially, everything is made locally, using local writers and casts, directors and designers, etc. generally performed on smaller stages, in black boxes, etc. all in an attempt to create a more sustainable theater scene and one that feels vital to the community it’s taking place in. To me, this is both where theater is headed and the best future for theater. I don’t think we’ll lose theater as a national presence or cease to have a national theater voice, but as such a large country with such a diverse populace, the importance of creating and cultivating a local theater scene is absolutely increasing with every day, and my hope is that the national presence and voice will soon reflect and honor that- which would actually be a return to the roots of what the regional theater system was supposed to be.

Hannah: Do audiences expect something different from the theater today?

Stuart: I always hesitate to speak for the audience in general, as I tend to believe the audience is kind of hard to predict and artists aren’t really supposed to try because when they do it tends towards pandering to the audience, and that almost always backfires. That said all artists operate to some degree on the premise that they know what “the audience wants” and I do think audiences expect to see something interesting, and don’t like to be alienated, that these are the basic principals of being entertaining (which granted, not all art seeks to be, or needs to be, or should be). This doesn’t mean you have to dumb things down or avoid challenging your audience, it just means I think they like to be treated like human beings, not talked down to, but also not talked over, and they like to see stuff which they perceive as relevant to them and their experience, or an insight into someone else’s experience or some other world. Mostly, I think audiences today, like audiences of every era, want to be stimulated, to feel like they are getting something out of their time and money, even if that something isn’t what they expected. For me, as an audience member, I actually probably love being surprised, more than anything else. Surprised and/or inspired. But I’ve been told I’m not a typical audience member. The problem with that is nobody seems to agree on just what or who the typical audience member is. Between you and me, I think I am the typical audience member.

Hannah: What are the most exciting movements (or writing) in your opinion, taking place in the USA?

Stuart: I mean, I love the fringe movement and I love the small theater movement, so that’s exciting to me. I think it’s cool that so many people are still making theater and studying theater (it’s more popular than ever as a major in college) even though it’s basically indisputably impractical as a career in the traditional definition of that (like, you’re almost assuredly never going to make a steady living at it no matter how good you are or where you live). There are a lot of writers around I really like, on the local and national and international level, far too many to name and feel like I was doing that list justice, but if I was to name ten working American stage-writers off the top of my head whose work I find consistently compelling: John Guare, Marsha Norman, Megan Cohen, Nat Cassidy, Sheila Callaghan, Kirk Shimano, Michael John LaChiusa, Claire Rice, Evelyn Jean Pine, and Robert Schenkkan. It excites me to no end that Stephen Sondheim is apparently working on a new show. I love that big cast shows are coming back, and all kinds of different genres like horror and fantasy and melodrama are returning, because the small cast American kitchen sink drama was really getting old and was rarely very good. I like all the interest in nontraditional and site specific venues, and alternative performance styles and hybrid/fusions of theater, dance, art, circus, etc. I’m excited that people keep trying to push the established forms and I think it actually keeps the established forms established, but also relevant.

Hannah: Is the digital culture a threat to theater in its traditional form?

Stuart: Nope. Lazy audiences and lazy artists are a threat to Art in any medium or form. Repressive governments and bad public education is a threat to Art. Lack of funding and lack of recognition and lack of opportunities for new and established artists are a threat to Art. Lots of things are a threat to Art but more people owning computers and using cellphones isn’t.

Hannah: Is there an ‘American myth’ and if so, how is it changing?

Stuart: An American myth of theater? Or life? You need to be more specific here, because of course there is an American myth and of course it’s changing, all the time, and that’s true of any culture. In any culture there are a whole bunch of myths, always at work, because the human psyche creates myths constantly and human personality latches onto them faster than they can be created or refuted. And anyone who tells you otherwise is either buying into a myth of their own or selling you one.

Hannah: Do we need a ‘modern mythology’ to accommodate our changing imaginations? Is Classical myth limited in its capacity to engage modern audiences?

Stuart: Classical myth is only limited if you take a purist approach, which I do not, or an antiquarian approach- which is useful as a point of reference or in research, but should never be thought of as the final word. Speaking of word, I tend to believe that mythology is the “first language” of the human race and just as language changes over time, meanings and definitions, relevance and frequency of usage, myths do too. The beauty of mythology is its ability to shift and change with time and cultural shift and change, because the imagination doesn’t change, not really, so much as it progressively expands. Even classical mythology was one more stop on a continuum of human consciousness, the ends of which we can’t see. We may think of classical mythology as a frozen, static thing, but it wasn’t in “classical times” and it has never been since and it’s not now, as can be demonstrated simply by reading three mythology treasuries in a row- I can promise, they will all be different from one another, to one degree or another. We absolutely need and have a modern mythology, and it’s composed of the mythology of the past, and honors it, but it’s also always informed by the needs and fears of the present, and the hopes and trepidations of the future. By the time I am able to really tell you what the modern mythology is, it will already have changed and that’s exactly as it should be: imagination should always move faster than the speed of life.