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What is this Theater thing about?

By ROBERT BETHUNE
ART TIMES November 2008

IT'S A PROBLEM.

Itís a problem because nobody knows. The audience doesnít seem to know, and we donít seem to know either. On the other hand, maybe the audience knows something we donít—but I digress already.

Iím all in favor of theater being fun, both for those who create it and especially, and most importantly, for those who experience it. But the tone of this—which is typical of the tone of many of the messages we theater folk put out—is a problem.

So we donít get far with fun and games; we canít just go have a lark. So should we all put on our dark grey robes and chant solemn invocations in the dark? Should we all put on our radical chic and shout slogans in the park?

When you do the big solemn portentous thing, people stay home and watch TV.

When 17,000 people used to cram into the Theater of Dionysus to watch tragedy, something was going on that isnít going on today. Of course, there are lots and lots of things that were going on then that arenít going on today. Theater today is not done to honor a god that everyone believes in, because no such god exists. Theater today cannot address an audience that shares a common ground of myth, knowledge and culture, because no such audience exists. However, there was one thing going on that could be going on today: as the medium is the message, so theater had a consistent message, a consistent voice, a consistent attitude of doing something, some basic particular thing, that clearly was not just valuable, but irreplaceable. There were two public facilities every Greek city had to have, almost before the houses got built: a market and a theater.

And thatís a problem.

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