Transformations: The Rough Alchemy of Poor Theatre

Instead of endeavoring to trick audiences into suspending their disbelief with fly rigs and smoke machines, why don't we just ask them to come over and play an ancient game with us? 

I have just been peering through the lens of my telescope from the wave tossed crow’s nest of the HMS Defiance, searching desperately for any sign of land. We have been seven months at sea and the crew is on the verge of mutiny. Then I hand the telescope to the eight year old girl to my right, and instantly it has transformed into a bullhorn, and we are now New York police officers trying to talk the robbers out of the bank. “Come out with your hands up!” the diminutive officer says through the megaphone. And almost immediately three robbers, none older than twelve, come out of the darkness stage right with their hands up, one of them shouting, “You’ll never take me alive!”. The officer passes the bullhorn to her right and it becomes a treasure map, passed again it becomes a hat, again and its an airplane control stick. 

So, what is it really?

So, what is it really?

The game is called, "This Is Not A Piece of Paper", and we’ve all probably played a version of it at some point in our theatre training. The point of the exercise is to build confidence, develop creative thinking, and learn to say ‘yes’. The person with the piece of paper shows what the paper has become by manipulating it, and then acting out the scene that others in the group play along with. It is a good game and I’d recommend it for any group of any age, not because it will necessarily make you a better actor (there are lots of exercises that arguably develop technical proficiency faster) but because it gets at something that I believe is fundamentally theatrical: creating something new by turning something real into a representation of something else. This is an essential element of theatre, and a quality that few other art forms can claim.

For example: imagine a visual artist placing an old shoe on a pedestal in an art gallery and calling the piece, “Telephone”. While there might be many evocative things to be drawn from such a juxtaposition, its not the same thing as an actor holding her shoe up to her ear and acting out the conversation with her friend on the other end of the line. In the first instance the audience is meant to see both shoe and telephone. In the second, the audience is expected to replace the shoe with a telephone in their minds, to transform it into something else entirely with their imaginations. 

This kind of imaginative play is one of the foundations of theatre. Every prop, set piece, costume, and even actor, is a real thing that, for the duration of the play, is made into something else through the power of imagination and pretend, and this is what sets it apart from the cinematic arts (film and TV).

The one thing that all cinematic arts rely on is photographic reality. The nature of film requires placing the actor in a specific place and time and then photographing the scene. And while filmmakers can use green screens and CGI to create the illusion that the characters are on an alien star ship or at the bottom of the sea, they must still visually represent this on the screen. So, film’s ultimate restriction lies in the fact that it has to accurately show anything it wants its viewers to believe. The more completely the lens captures the world being created, the more likely we are to accept it. Cinema is the ultimate medium of the senses. Theatre, by contrast, expresses humanity's exceptional capacity for imagination and pretend. 

In a film, if the scene takes place in a church, you can bet that the director will find a real church that looks as much like the church called for in the script, put his actors in it, and start filming.  And this is necessary, because film relies on its ability to trick our senses into accepting the drama. It must seem real or at least very realistic so that the audience forgets that the real church being filmed is not actually the church of the film. But, in the theatre, in the medium of the imagination, no one watching needs to believe that they are actually seeing any of the places represented on stage. In the theatre, all that needs to happen, is for an actor to say, “This is a beautiful church,” and suddenly, everyone in the audience knows where the action has moved to; their imaginations seamlessly do the rest. 

Theatre relies on and fosters our imagination.

Everything in the theatre is a representation of something it is not. Nothing is real: everything is imagined; everything is pretended. And imagined by who? First by the actors, who are essentially highly trained and skilled pretenders, and then by the audience, who, when the quality of the actors' pretending is of a certain level, are themselves able to imagine right along with them, to be moved and affected not just by what they are actually seeing and hearing, but by what they are experiencing through the infinitely subtle and variable interpretations of their individual imaginations. 

And this is what theatre can do better than any other medium: It can give you, the audience member, a mechanism for activating your own imagination. The stage can be a kind of machine for helping you sink below the surface of the everyday world, into the deeper world of representation, story, symbolism, the subconscious, the mythical, and the divine. And it can do it better than film expressly because it is not a realistic medium. Theatre offers a more direct access those worlds because it replaces reality with pretend from the very outset, and it requires your participation in order to build the imaginary reality of the performance.  

So, when we in the theatre say we like ‘responsive audiences’, what we mean is, we like audiences that come willing to pretend with us. Because, in the theatre, the famous ‘fourth wall’ doesn’t exist between the actors and the audience; the audience is the fourth wall. You finish and furnish the reality of the play with your imaginations. Without you, the world is not complete. When a filmmaker turns off her camera, the church she was filming remains a church, but the minute the audience exits the theater, the stage, no matter what intimate or impossible place it might have been a moment before, goes back to being nothing more than a darkened platform.

That is the real magic of theatre: a great performance is always more than the sum of its parts. With nothing more than the theater artists' ability to pretend, and the audience’s willingness to actively engage their imaginations, a stage can become a kingdom, a hat can become a spaceship, and a person can become anyone or anything we can dream of.

Artuad in his seminal work, The Theatre and Its Double called it, the Alchemical Theatre. Peter Brook called it the Rough Theatre, and Jerzy Grotowski called it the Poor Theatre. All of them are getting at the same essential idea: theatre that is designed to provoke and access the imagination or subconscious.

This is a different kind of theatre from contemporary mainstream dramas or musicals, with separate goals, techniques, and aesthetics. Performances of this type are not likely to make it to the Great White Way, but that is not the goal. Fundamentally this is a ‘less polished’ or ‘rougher’ style of presentation. There may be nothing on stage except a single actor in street clothes. There may not even be a stage to speak of. If there are props, they are typically everyday objects that with a little imagination become anything the actor can portray. 

By relying on the same transformative properties I’ve been talking about, the audience is permitted to see that there is nothing up the actor’s sleeve besides her own talent. This in turn puts more responsibility on the audience, requiring that they fill in the blanks with their imaginations. It encourages them to stay engaged and play along, instead of becoming passive observers laboring to suspend their disbelief while being presented with only partly effective illusions. This style both asks more of the audience and gives them more credit. It asks them to play a game of theatre with the actors, a game very similar to "This Is Not A Piece of Paper". The audience then, no longer focused on suspending its disbelief, instead converts its energy into pretending and imagining along with the actors. Both groups are then coming to the table with their own necessary components to create a complete theatre experience.

As a final note, here is a prominent theatre artist lamenting his own theater’s lack of scenic and design capabilities, and then asking his audience to rely on the much more vibrant special effects of their own imaginations. Most folks would say the play did all right:

O for a Muse of fire, that would ascend
The brightest heaven of invention,
A kingdom for a stage, princes to act
And monarchs to behold the swelling scene!
Then should the warlike Harry, like himself,
Assume the port of Mars; and at his heels,
Leash'd in like hounds, should famine, sword and fire
Crouch for employment. But pardon, and gentles all,
The flat unraised spirits that have dared
On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
So great an object: can this cockpit hold
The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
Within this wooden O the very casques
That did affright the air at Agincourt?
O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
Attest in little place a million;
And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
On your imaginary forces work.
Suppose within the girdle of these walls
Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
Into a thousand parts divide on man,
And make imaginary puissance;
Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
Printing their proud hoofs i' the receiving earth;
For 'tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
Carry them here and there; jumping o'er times,
Turning the accomplishment of many years
Into an hour-glass: for the which supply,
Admit me Chorus to this history;
Who prologue-like your humble patience pray,
Gently to hear, kindly to judge, our play. 

                                      - Shakespeare, Henry V

- JP Schuffman is the Producing Artistic Director of Knoxville Theatre Club. He's an essayist, poet, occasional critic, and huge nerd.