INTRODUCTION BY JOHN CLINTON EISNER, LARK PRODUCING DIRECTOR...
This blog focuses on what our community members have to say about where we’re headed as a society and the tools we’ll need to get there. Each month, we invite a guest essayist to share a unique perspective on the role of live theater in the twenty-first century and what the field has to offer society as a whole.
Our guest essayist this month is Colin Greer. In addition to being a playwright, poet and essayist, Colin has been President of the New World Foundation since 1985. He is the author of many books on education and social justice and chairs Lark’s Board of Trustees. Early on, he was an assistant to Peter Brook. His full bio can be found at newwf.org.
More than any other influence in my life, Colin changed the way I see theater and its possibility. The Lark has become a special place of process and inquiry—a true platform for creative expression and experimentation—as a consequence of more than a decade of deep dialogue with Colin about the relationship between theater and society and the role of playwrights and their collaborators as leaders, visionaries, and the formers of new vocabulary to describe a changing world.
We look forward to reading your responses to Colin—and to one another
THE POWER OF INQUIRY
by Colin Greer
I recently saw Stephen Schwartz (who is most widely known for his musical “Wicked”) interviewed on Channel 1’s “On Stage,” talking about how he experienced the “meanness” of Broadway and the much more “creatively comfortable” world of regional and not-for-profit theaters which are ideally driven by a non commercial mission. I resonated with that point because I have found myself increasingly bored on Broadway and excited and stimulated off-Broadway. So I am interested in what the non commercial mission brings into play that engages me.
As I think about this mission, I am reminded of Paul Woodruff argument in his book The Necessity of Theatre. He finds this mission in what he calls “active theater,” which he sees as deriving from and constituted by ritual reminiscent of religious origins. My own interest is less in theater as ritual and more in theater as epistemology: what I would call a “theater of inquiry” based on dynamic processes of investigating human experience rather than as a force working simply in the interest of tradition and continuity. For me, active theater is a way of knowing. When I sit in on Lark roundtables, for example, it is entirely fulfilling as an exploratory process. In the next phases of a play’s development, that exploratory dynamic continues as we deploy the senses of touch, hearing, vision, and imagination brought into service of reflection, understanding and open inquiry.
What do I mean by a theater of inquiry?
1) Theater happens by collaboration: Without fixed rules on how we actually choose writers, directors, actors and audience, theater is always an experiment in participation and encounter.
2) What we present: The end product is a result of creative inspiration that seeps in from the world is then coddled and mashed, caressed and molded to give shape to a reality.
3) Appreciative distance: Living in other people’s hearts and minds helps us to find our shared humanity, which pushes some of the normal boundaries of human interaction. When writers and actors explore and express, audiences are invited to enter imaginatively into the lives of others.
4) Groundlessness: A play is always in transition as it is developed in readings, rehearsals, and performances. And, after a run, the same play can be quite different in a new circumstance with new people. Entering a terrain where things have permission to fall apart and fragments are allowed to re-gather is the rich territory of discovery we enter as we attach, detach and re-attach during the journey of creating a play.
5) Tradition: A play requires an intense willingness to pay attention to and to question a great repertoire of established explanations. By taking part in these new areas of experience, we weave in and out of theology, psychology, philosophy, and law, without a fixed point as we engage the complex realms of social conventions, family customs and personal desire.
6) Shock: Through circumstances and character, theater can fracture “now” and ask us to test living in a new space. To re-design the world, or as Heidegger put it (in his article “The Origin of the Work of Art”) is “to speak out with the design of a world in mind” and to challenge dissociated routines, empty conversations and inertia.
In presenting theater as an epistemological activity I don’t mean to be one more philosophically inclined former academic claiming it as another particular philosophy among other philosophies. For me, “active theater” serves because its inquiry processes, in contrast to philosophy’s dedication to expression via concepts and verbal definitions, stem from its use of image and live symbolic expression. By coming alive through both personal and interpersonal voice theater engages me in the complex integration of my inner and outer experience.