Is the theatre really dead? Everyone asked that question in the early Fifties, and it probably wasn't new even then. Simon and Garfunkel reiterated it in 1966 and now, a few years into this media-saturated new millennium, it's as timely and embarrassing a question as ever.
We were a dominant cultural force a mere hundred years ago, the place to go for communal stories, public dreams. Until our flashy celluloid kid sister showed up to hog the spotlight, joined onstage by her even brasher little broadcast brother. Their economies of scale and marketing muscle mean live theatre now occupies a dimly lit corner of the public stage, shabbily costumed and almost unnoticed, somewhere near the stage-left exit.
Post-modern culture is notoriously – and increasingly – word-resistant and image-oriented, not to mention fractured, hurried and advertised-to. Fast, cheap and out of control. (Maybe it's not theatre that's dying, maybe it's our culture that's killing itself). Consumers – which is what we're being reduced to – aren't likely even to hear about what's going on at the local skit factory: we can't afford the billboards, and electronic media looks after its own. Even when word does leak out, this language-rooted art form lacks the jump cuts, digital effects and – let's face it – graphic violence and sex that sells its flashier sibs.
So. Is the theatre really dead? If by dead you mean we're not the most visible cultural juggernaut in the neighbourhood then, yes, we're as near-dead now as thirty-five or fifty years ago – not completely, but pretty much. Us and the poets, the string quartets and the speakers of Esperanto. But if you mean dead as in dead - not breathing, no pulse, stage lights off, nobody home – I must report that the rumours are, as always, greatly exaggerated. Theatre is live. Very much so.
And that's the point, really. Liveness. Because people still, and always will, need that one essential, irreducible distinctive of our miraculous, marginal, indispensable art form. Maybe now more than ever.
A lot of us are getting more than a little sick of the whole franchised, hyped, impersonal show. Forget Reality TV, we want Real. It became obvious in the Eighties that TV church wasn't church at all – however postmodern we might get, we'll always be human, we'll always need human contact, flesh and blood and bread and wine. And what's true of church is true of theatre – screens won't do. It's not just our sermons and small groups that need to live and breathe, it's our stories. We crave this – to breathe common air, feel the actor's closeness, smell the grease paint, roar with the crowd. We're wary and weary of words, but what if those words take flesh and live among us?
Stuart Scadron-Wattles rightly observes that the best, truest and most vital theatre – Necessary, not Obligatory, Theatre – does powerfully what we've always needed story to do. Without preaching message, it nonetheless proposes an order to the chaos of fragmented lives – and God knows they're as chaotic and fragmented as ever, just now. It engages audience and artist in a tangible kind of community, as co-creators held together by the distinctly participative and permissive imagination that can make theatre an experience of transcendence. Far from being culturally peripheral or irrelevant, Necessary Theatre is essential to its community, and to the lives of its audience: "it reports from the front of cultural change," and because it is produced locally (rather than shipped in bulk from massive narrative warehouses thousands of miles away), it speaks distinctively and potently to the specific concerns of its community.
Theatre & Company, which Stuart founded, is as committed to serving its region (Kitchener-Waterloo, Ontario) as it is to a particular spiritual or artistic mandate. Or perhaps it would be more accurate to say that the company's spiritual/artistic mandate is worked out within the particularities of a specific geographical calling. This dynamic distinguishes all the professional theatres expressing a Judeo-Christian mandate, from Lamb's Players in San Diego and Seattle's Taproot Theatre, for example, to the remarkable proliferation of such companies north of the border – Toronto's Brookstone Theatre, Rosebud Theatre in Alberta, Pacific Theatre and the Chemainus Theatre Festival on the west coast. Live theatre may not be as visible in the trans-continental mass market as film, television or published media, but it survives by tuning its ear to its proximate community, telling the specific stories those particular people are hungry to hear. What guarantees that this home-grown, humble art form remains Necessary and essential is its very smallness, its intimacy, its specificity. Generality, as Stanislavsky said, is the enemy of art.
It is fascinating to me that, by and large, these companies were founded by evangelical Christians, even though – and this must be stressed – their mandates were and are not evangelistic. (It may also be significant that many of these people would now be wary about labeling themselves "evangelical," though all are still Christians). There have always been Christians involved in the theatre, though thirty years ago they mostly operated undercover, and I'm going to guess they were mostly Lutherans and Catholics and Anglicans who lacked their evangelical cousins' guardedness toward the arts. But I find it remarkable that so much vital, culturally-engaged work that Christians are now doing springs from soil that until so recently grew mostly gospel singers and evangelists.
Forty years ago, the prevailing Evangelical stance toward theatre was the same as its stance toward culture in general – guarded skepticism, even outright antagonism. But Baptists made the mistake of buying TVs, to watch Billy Graham and Monday night football. Once those square-eyed Trojan horses infiltrated evangelical living rooms, the mighty fortress of cultural separationism was breached and it was only a matter of time until the kids were going to movies and trying out for the school play. When they left home for theatre school twenty-five years ago, they were hard-pressed to find believing peers, let alone role models or mentors, but their children are now signing up for actor training and playwriting workshops with no clue that their grandparents didn't even go to the movies. Indeed, the theatre program they attend may be at the very college where Grandpa learned his anti-culture theology. I don't know if Wheaton students were allowed to go to plays thirty years ago: now they're making them.
Other signs of life. After a decade or more when no new religious-mandate professional companies were birthed, recent years have seen new initiatives in New York City (the Salvation Army's Theatre 315), Orlando (The Vine Theatre) and Atlanta (Art Within), with a some Baylor theatre grads about to raise the curtain on a new venture in Dallas. Even the theologians are catching on: Jeremy Begbie, whose notion of "doing theology through the arts" is all the rage in certain circles, and Hans Urs von Balthazar, the It Boy of Catholic theology, share an appreciation for theatre their pastor-shaping predecessors lacked.
Good thing. Increasingly, the churches those seminarians end up pastoring have ministers of drama, acting workshops and even well-equipped theatres. Congregations are mounting full-scale productions of real plays, embracing the power of theatre-making to forge community and appeal to a generation of non-church-goers who don't want to be preached at, but are hungry for both story and authentic human contact.
The church is catching on to theatre just as theatre is catching on to church – or if not church, at least what churches have been reaching for all these years. I don't know if it's because everybody got all superstitious as the millennium approached, or if the collapse of the World Trade Towers put not only fear but the fear of God into people. Or maybe it's just because Christians have been emerging from their hidey-holes and getting involved in the culture, until we've reached the point where enough of them know enough of us that we all realize there's not really an Us and a Them anymore.
Whatever it is, there's no denying that the arts community's suspicious antipathy toward Christians and Christianity is being replaced by – dare I imagine it? – an almost respectful interest in what we've been on about all along.
Live theatre is an up-close and local thing, which makes it harder to generalize about Theatre In North America than about, say, film or fiction, which have a geographically dispersed audience and impact. So let me reflect on what I've seen over the past twenty years here in Vancouver, on the Emersonian principle that what's true of me is true of the universe.
When Pacific Theatre was founded in 1984, the Christians portrayed on stage – or screen, for that matter – were hypocrites, manipulators and sex abusers. Most new plays didn't deal with spiritual things, except in the vaguest and flakiest terms. Now I see spiritual enquiry in every second play I attend, and as often as not Christian characters are portrayed with the same humanity as anybody else – neither more nor less fallen, neither more nor less holy.
For the first decade of our history, Pacific Theatre was excluded from pretty much every aspect of the cultural mainstream: no government arts funding, no reviews, no admission to the Theatre Alliance. But the second ten years of our story has seen a dramatic reversal. Critics cover all our shows and even applaud the company's religious mandate, government agencies fund and encourage our work, and the professional theatre community welcomes us at the table, gives us our fair share of award nominations and committee assignments, comes to see our work.
Have we "won the right to be heard"? I suppose, partly. Sheer survival counts for something, and eventually people had to realize we weren't the proselytizing monsters they feared we were. But more, I believe, something has shifted in the zeitgeist. People are not only willing to tolerate us, they want to hear what we have to say, find out our spiritual survival strategies. Modernism, and its mystery-denying faith in science and pure rationality, has all but expired. Post-modernism's scorn for narrative and meaning don't wash any more. People – some people, anyway – want Mystery and humanity.
It astounds me that the Pacific Theatre plays which end up being produced at companies with no religious mandate are our most religious ones. Who would ever have believed that Tent Meeting, a play about gospel quartets and revival meetings and climaxing with an altar call, and Espresso, where the pursuing lover is Christ himself, would be performed at regional theatres across Canada?
Twenty years ago, non-propagandist scripts exploring spiritual experience with any sort of Christian resonance just weren't out there – we had to write our own. Which was fine: it made us nurture playwrights who create highly specific works for our context which – Emerson, again – end up having far wider impact than anything confined to our stage. But that's no longer our only recourse: my next season includes two new works from Canadian theatres with no faith mandate; Halo, in which the face of Christ appears on the wall of a Cape Breton donut shop, and The Domino Heart, about the spiritual consequences of an organ transplant. We're no longer the only game in town. Thank God.
Still, as spiritually open as theatre may now be, our days as Belle of the cultural Ball are long since passed. But they can't stop us from dancing. There will always be people born with story in their bones, and a compulsion to incarnate them in front of other people. Because the movies only need a handful of us – a flick with maybe fifty speaking parts will be seen by how many million people? – we find other ways to live out our calling. That's what the stage is for.
Something is stirring in live theatre on our continent. It may be that ours is the most peripheral of the narrative arts, with the least visibility and the lowest attendance. But if the invisible God is indeed moving in the arts, it wouldn't surprise me to find him in the midst of the least and the lowest.
Originally appeared in IMAGE Journal #42, Spring 2004, as part of their 15th anniversary symposium on the future of the arts, "Redeeming The Time."