The Theatre of the Future exists only in my imagination. It is a movement I invented because I felt despair about my own playwriting. If I hadn’t become a practitioner of the Theatre of the Future, I would have stopped being a playwright a long time ago. If theatre is a calling—and I’m a bit suspicious when people try to convince me it is—but if theatre is a calling, then it is the future, and not the past or present, that calls me to it.
The past called the Greeks, I think. Their essential question was, I believe, “to repeat or not to repeat.” The present called Shakespeare, and so for him the question was “to be or not to be.” But today television and film—not theatre—entertain the masses. Today, playwriting faces a crisis of action that is more crippling than Hamlet’s. As I prepare to enter the new millennium, the existential question that I consider daily is “to become or not to become.”
Each day I am faced with the distinct possibility of becoming something besides a playwright. Theatre is so insignificant to our popular culture—everyone knows it is impossible to make a living writing plays—that I am constantly tempted to become a teacher, to become a lawyer, to become a screenwriter instead. Along with this temptation from without, there is also an insidious temptation from within: to become a cynic. I find it much easier to sneer at what others are doing than to say what I mean in front of an audience. I am afraid to say what I mean because I am afraid that what I mean isn’t new, isn’t important.
Thankfully, I came to the realization a number of years ago that my role as a playwright was to accept this place of doubt and to write myself out of it. I discovered that it is exactly my doubt about the relevance of playwriting that makes this time such a potentially fertile one for me to be writing plays. Doubt is a precious gift because it is during times of intense doubt that I am able to reinvent my faith in the unknown. If I don’t fall prey to my own cynicism, there is the possibility that faith will appear to me in all its glory, as it must have appeared when I was a child—unencumbered by plot.
We’re a society obsessed with plot. Religious and artistic epiphanies have been replaced by marketplace epiphanies. The stock market runs on plot, elections run on plot, even wars run on plot. Plot creates anxieties that only a new product or a new politician or a new defense system can ease. These false epiphanies—both the highs and the lows—suck us into materialism. It is no accident that television news programs, sporting events and situation comedies all create the most anxiety or elation right before they cut to commercials. I feel happy, I feel anxious, and so I buy.
Sadly, even when I write plays, I am stuck with the anxieties and fears that come from worrying about what comes next. I write a play, but worry about whether it will be produced. When it is produced, I worry about whether it will be reviewed. When it is reviewed, I worry about whether it will be a good review. When I get a good review, I worry about whether certain important people have seen the review. When these important people begin to recognize my work, I worry that I’m no longer writing important plays. So I try to write a new one, but worry about whether it will be produced.
To deal with my highs and lows while on this treadmill, I succumb to the distractions of the material world. I find sitting for hours in front of the blank page unbearable, so I go out and buy a new computer. I’m elated at winning an award, so I go on a trip. And after I have indulged myself in all there is to avoid writing, I return to the blank page not refreshed, but ashamed, tired and lonely.
Instead of worrying about what will happen next, maybe I should be asking myself why things are the way they are. Theatre should, after all, be one place that isn’t consumed by plot. In fact, in the noncommercial theatre in this country there are very few external market forces telling us what to say or how to say it. The theatres that produce my plays don’t require me to have commercial breaks. I don’t have to sell products for them. And yet, I am still afraid to say what I mean in front of an audience, and to deaden the fear I attempt to create for myself a professional environment that models itself after business—that measures its success in business standards. How can I make art when the very language of my playwriting has become infected with the language of the marketplace: payoff, investment, production, process, material, development, workshop?
And this is why I finally had to invent the Theatre of the Future for myself, because I knew that if I wanted to continue to be a playwright, I had to find a way to escape this inevitability of materialism. For me, making theatre has become a journey towards an unknown future. I may still fear it, but in writing towards it, I constantly have to project meaning into the world, rather than constantly deriving my meaning from it.
My theatre becomes materialistic when I allow my plays to have an intrinsic meaning outside the theatrical event. I may charge people to witness the events I create, but if my script can be bought and sold as property—if I assign my plays a value separate from their existence in performance—then I am in danger of making the audience irrelevant to my art form. I believe audiences shy away from theatre when they sense, intuitively, that they are unimportant to the play. How many times have I gone to the theatre and seen a piece that I know would be performed no differently to an empty house?
It is only when my plays are presented in front of an audience that they transform from the material into the immaterial. Each night I try to make an event that can’t be sold because it can never be reproduced exactly. My play can take place only in this space on this particular evening and—most significantly—with this particular audience. If you see one of my plays, I hope you get the feeling that you are essential to the piece, that the event unfolds as it does only because you are in attendance tonight. For this reason, my plays are never better than the way they are performed by these particular actors under these particular circumstances. If my work fails, as it often does, I create no theoretical parallel universe where it doesn’t fail. To say that a perfect version of my play exists in my head or in an ideal production with somebody else in the lead role—this is simply delusion. In fact, if I have no play performed tonight, then I don’t even consider myself a playwright. I may write for eight hours today, but what I am writing is not a play. It is merely the groundwork that ensures my possibility of being a playwright some night in the future.
One of the grave consequences of materialism has been the loss of free will in our society. I believe you give away a little of your free will each time you dip into the world for meaning. For some of us, the only choices left in life are the false choices of the Pepsi or Coke variety. Along with the loss of free will comes a sameness that spills over from popular culture into the arts. Audiences flock to The Lion King because they know the show will be the same tonight as it was last night. Your kid can have the same experience as my kid and every other kid on the planet.
Unlike materialistic theatre, the Theatre of the Future has the potential to uncover the lost free will in the audience. It allows for plays that are different each night. It allows you to have an experience that is different from my experience, and is based upon your particular imagination. The Theatre of the Future allows for us to be individuals and yet to be together in one room. When I write for the Theatre of the Future, I try to create theatrical events to which the audience must actively give their own meanings—give their own experiences, history and beliefs. I try to write plays where the audience is expected to project into the work what they mean—along with the actors, the director and the designer. I try to bring the audience out of its current malaise by reminding them of the possibility for transformation through chance, accident and grace.
The difficulty is that I must present my plays to an audience that often enters the theatre bogged down by the day-to-day. Sometimes I think my work is transformational, but other times the relationship between my plays and the audience seems more like the scene in Frankenstein where the monster meets the blind guy. My play is the monster, of course, befriended by an audience who—by and large—has forgotten how to watch theatre. And I am Igor, opening graves and using other people’s remains to cobble together a play. I’m not making anything new. I have stolen most of my good ideas, snatched them from dead playwrights in the middle of the night, hoping none of you will notice. And in order to make my monster live, I know that some force has to animate it from far outside my own worldly experience. This animating force—this lightning strike—comes suddenly out of the darkness of the future. It comes from the place that is past my own death, past my doubts. It comes from the faith of chance. It comes from the grace of awkwardness. It comes from the gut of uncertainty. It comes from writing about that which I can’t possibly understand.
In school I was taught that writers must only tell what they know. But the Theatre of the Future forces me to tell what I don’t know, what I can never be certain of. It is no longer enough for me to try to articulate some ancient notions about the human experience. If I am going to write plays for tomorrow, I know that I must be prepared to reinvent for myself what it means to be human. If I don’t hurry to reinvent myself through a life of theatre, then my new meanings will be determined for me by the computer software people, by the genetic determinists, by the Fundamentalists.
For me, the Theatre of the Future offers hope that the future will still hold the possibility of community, of human contact, of freedom, of free will, of artistic integrity, of accountability, of many distinct voices speaking together in one room. It is only because of theatre that I can envision a future in which we don’t stare at screens all day, but instead sit around campfires together and share our ghost stories. I know that unless I have the courage to write toward the Theatre of the Future, that there will be for me only a Theatre of the Present. I will continue to act as if Waiting for Godot is the last play ever written, and even the writers I admire most will simply be filling in the blanks between Shakespeare and Beckett.
W. David Hancock is the author of The Race of the Ark Tattoo and other plays.
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