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Friday, March 20, 2009

seeing the play

One of the things I like best about theater is its humble origins. It’s an art and craft that grow out of something every human child does without thinking twice. Play.

For all the ancient images of people sitting around a small fire listening to a storyteller, there aren’t nearly enough ancient images of how the children of the tribe played out those stories. We luckily inherit many highly ritualized performance traditions from cultures all over the world that tell, with extraordinary skill and polished precise detail, core stories through dance, music, and theater… but I also like to think that over the ages, during the afternoon after the fireside storytelling, a lot of unofficial versions got invented by young ones so that they didn’t just have to listen to a story, but could see it, hear it, be in it.

Tonight you’ll see a play. Playing is at the heart of any and all theater – it is its lifeblood. When you lose the capacity to play, you lose track of what being an artist is all about.

You can still see lots of theater which is immediate and improvised like what I’d watch small children do in my daughter’s kindergarten class, or what I remember doing myself in kindergarten. But other traditions and skills have been added that make most theater slightly different from this play – writing that creates repeatable dialogue, consciously developed designs of place, costume, lights and sound, and many many hours of practice.

We do all of this here at Downtown Art, even if we do it in a minimalist fashion (although this might seem sort of high falutin’, we do actually consciously practice an aesthetic that came out of 20th century theater theory.. a movement dubbed ‘towards a poor theater’.. a destination I think we can claim some success with reaching..) but whether you call our work underfunded or deliberately streamlined, Brechtian in its rough simplicity or ingenious at stretching the budget in its use of materials…because we are not a theater overloaded with stuff, it is I think easier to see the ‘play’. Which I like. And perhaps we can also see the ‘play’ a little more clearly because our young company is young and has so far evaded the restraining influences that can settle on us as adults, so that making play, which was once so dear and deeply understood, is just a distant pleasant memory.

STAR ARGUMENTS is about play in many ways. I mean the story is a classic fairy tale, a young hero coming of age, rescuing a princess and saving a galaxy, but even George Lucas designed his original Star Wars as play – his actors always seemed to be kind of winking in good fun at their characters and George and Stephen seemed to have the time of their life playing a high tech game. I guess you could say here at Downtown Art, STAR ARGUMENTS is our chance to play just as full out, but our game is a very VERY low tech one.

Our city is an intense experience and most of our lives full to the bursting point. We all have developed strategies for wriggling out of the pressure vise that can grip us, for finding ways to clear our minds and sleep soundly through the night. But sometimes I feel we are such a serious bunch… we can be almost grim in our efforts to relieve our tensions. I am as serious and intense as anyone…but I have a major advantage to help me ease up. I am surrounded by young creative people. And they remind me all the time to prize fun, to treasure light heartedness, and that fresh ideas often arrive, new perspectives often come to visit, because we let ourselves play.

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