Recently I received a message from a young friend of mine. She wrote me: “I haven’t seen you update your blog for a long time. I’m worried about you.”
Indeed, I didn’t write anything new for a long time. Honestly, I lack the inspiration and motivation for writing, specially about theater. The time we live in is not the time for drama. Although very dramatic, it is not theatrical. It is not inspirational. Theater was always, from its very beginning, celebration of life, and our time is the time of death.
Like in the 14th century when the Black Death killed millions of people throughout Europe and stopped economical and every other growth, the same thing is happening right now. The economies are under serious decline, social distancing stopped mobility of people, goods and services, the countries closed themselves within their borders trying to protect own people from foreigners and social distancing is protecting people in the country from each other. In the arts, the biggest values that were highly promoted all around the world for decades, namely mobility of the artists, mobility of artistic products and intercultural dialogue, suddenly vanished as a foam on a sea wave. We are all stuck in place without moving, without dialogue, without exchange.
The friend of mine working in the theater in Xi’an wrote me: “I am fine but the theater is not. We don’t have many audiences as usual. We have performed several times but needed to cancel few of them because we cannot sell the tickets.”
Judy Dench, famous British actress, in the interview published in The Stage magazine is contemplating about the future of theater: “We imagine that this is a temporary thing, that this is happening just now and that when the pandemic passes it’s all going to go back to normal. Well it will, maybe, for some people, but it certainly won’t for all of us working in theater.” When asked if she thought theatre was facing an existential risk, she said she thought it was. “If the theaters now close, I don’t know when we are going to get them back” she said, warning that social distancing in theaters would not work. She added: “Will theaters ever open again? I don’t know. Certainly I am sure not in my lifetime. I can’t see how it’s going to recover.”
The death of theater
In its origin, theater is a gathering of people, it is socializing, it is a group celebration of life and the arts. Nobody can imagine theater based on social distancing, can you? Throughout history theater survived and overcame many different obstacles and threats always finding the ways for survival. Even in a time of war, theater is performed on the front lines bringing soldiers hope and entertainment, it is performed in the shelters, in the basements where people are gathering, in the hospitals and refugee camps. In a time of war people are gathering together because only united they can win a war against an enemy. In our war against the virus we can win only if we are separated from each other. We have to sacrifice many different things in order to save our physical life. One of the things we need to sacrifice is also theater. But this is not the new thing, because theater’s deadly agony started long ago and this situation now is just the last needle in its coffin.
By the end of 19th century and at the beginning of 20th century, theater was serving almost all social needs. Theater was a place where people were socializing, exchanging news, create public taste and public opinion. Gradually, the process of disintegration of theater started more than one hundred years ago.
The first novelty that announced the death of theater was the invention of film. Although in the beginning the movies were imitating theater, very soon theater started to imitate and compete with film. This imitation of film is still on work in many theaters, specially in theater for children.
The movie has taken the audience from theater thus steeling one of its primary function — social gathering.
Dismantling of the body of theater continued with newspaper industry that took from it the exchange of news and building up public opinion.
The third and the pivot needle was nailed in the coffin of theater by the invention of TV. Fascinated with this new technology, people stayed at home isolating themselves from each other. Theater lost its primary social function, and TV became the main source for bringing news and the main tool for propaganda and building up public opinion. In the same time, theater in its search for authentic theatrical language, expelled emotions from theater and introduced intellectual perception — the audience needed to “understand” performances rather then to like them and have emotional relationship to what they see. TV gladly accepted this change of theater paradigm and started producing soap, sitcom and other “drama” that rooted the audience in front of the screen.
Electronic technologies, computers, different gadgets and smart phones dismantled the body of the audience even more than TV, alienating the audience from theater. Film industry also moved to internet what resulted with closing off thousands of movie theaters and switch from public to individual watching. Theater that depends on a number of audience, cannot do that switch. Theater cannot go on internet because it stops being a theater the moment when there is no live audience attending the performance in the same physical space.
In theater for children, the final nails in the coffin of theater art were nailed by the British paradigm of so called “Drama in Education” and “Theater in Education”, introducing the concept in which the content of theatrical work is education and theater performance is merely the form of teaching. Theater started its serving to education putting itself in the position of a slave instead of being a master. Theater art became a subcategory of so called “Drama” and the audience became irrelevant part of the Theater Trinity — stage, actor, audience. Now drama can be made with or without audience — who cares!
Covid 19 and social distancing closed the theaters and all other public spaces, schools and universities and people rely only on TV and internet. Social gathering, the bases of theater, is lost and theater entered into the state of clinical death because it lost its primary function and its reason for existence — to serve the audience.
Is theater dead or is it just a hundred years long sleep like in Sleeping Beauty? If theater ever wakes up, how the world will look like? Definitely not like we used to know. Maybe this is the chance for a new life and resurrection of theater once when this Pandemic is over. The problem is that we don’t know how the world will look like and we don’t know if the world will need theater any more. Will the world remember that once upon a time there was a theater?