I’ve been thinking a lot about contemporary theatre these days. No, that’s not an event, really. But In the last two weeks I have seen seven shows that are “new”, mostly as part of Vancouver’s much-lauded PuSh International Performing Arts Festival.
I love PuSh. I love the opportunity to see shows from around the world, to, in a small way, put my finger on the pulse of the body of contemporary theatre. I love the impetus for local groups to create works that are innovative and unusual. I love the energy of walking into a show knowing that the promo blurb didn’t really prepare me for what’s about to happen, that it couldn’t because the performance will be indescribable. I love the way it makes me think about my art form and expand my ideas of what theatre is. I love the idea of this Festival and the respect and enthusiasm it generates in and about Vancouver artists.
But, true to my nature, I also hate PuSh. I hate the complete focus on works that are strange and experimental. I hate the celebration of what’s offensive in the name of art (exemplified by this year’s poster child, Jerk). I hate the lack of dialogue and relationship. I hate the almost total absence of story.
And that’s the crux of the matter for me. Where have all the stories gone? If PuSh is a true and accurate representation of contemporary world theatre, is story completely passé? None of the shows I saw at PuSh (nor, as near as I can tell, any of the shows I did not see) were primarily concerned with story, with the exception of The Edward Curtis Project. (Interestingly, the promotional paragraph in the PuSh program emphasizes Edward Curtis’s interdisciplinary and political nature and does not even hint at the centrality of a human story.)
There were elements of story, certainly. In Nevermore, the story is fairly clear and undeniably important. But it isn’t central. The spectacular images and evocative music created by the genius team of Jonathan Christenson and Brette Gerecke will live on in my mind for years. But Poe’s life provides inspiration and context for those elements rather than a traditional linear narrative.
With Kamp, we take the story of the holocaust in with us. And given the unrelenting horror of each day in the concentration camps, and the inescapable reality that the prisoners suffered, the show is justifiably and movingly not linear.
In The Passion of Joan of Arc, story exists in our minds (because most are familiar with the basics of her tale) and in the projected lines of dialogue from the original silent film. So there is a sort of story and certainly a linear progression towards Joan’s inevitable death. But spectacle, not story, rules.
Poetics: A Ballet Brut teases us with the potential of story, as it teases us with the potential of relationship. But none of the potential of this piece is fully realized and the lack of clear structure and meaning appears carefully calculated, a kind of up-your-nose self-consciousness that likely earned them their reputation as “the most buzzed about new troupe on the New York avant-garde scene.” The fantastic and thoroughly enjoyable piece involving the “secret dancers”, along with the delightfully out of place pink tutu-clad ballerina, come close to providing context and meaning, however undefined. But it is too little, too late, and too overshadowed by a series of numbers that dare us to say the emperor has no clothes.
The sensory overload of White Cabin was remarkable. Intriguing, engaging, and artistic, the creativity and chaos of the production land it at the top of my “shows I never want to stage manage” list. But it isn’t about story. There is a charming sequence in the middle in which the two male performers exchange a series of sumo-wrestler style belly bumps. The audience was completely enchanted, on the edge of their seats, chuckling appreciatively. I think the reason this sequence is so compelling is that it was one of the few times when we saw the “characters” interact, and as humans we are wired to long for relationship.
The whole experience of PuSh has placed me in a bit of a personal quandary. I love story. As an undergrad, I was a TA in the English Department and I remember telling people that “theatre has my body, but English has my heart”. My fundamental reason for doing theatre is because it enables us to literally bring stories to life.
But I also love spectacle. I love theatre that can’t be anything else, theatre that tells the story by immersing us in experiences and images that could never be captured in a book or on film. To sacrifice the technical artistry of light, set, costumes, and sound on the altar of “the well-made play” would be a great tragedy. But to tell a great tragedy – or a great comedy or drama – is a privilege that cannot be abandoned in pursuit of what’s “cool”.