Theatre in bars. Theatre in parks. Theatre in museums.
Doesn’t anybody remember what a proscenium looks like? Who decided to pack the fourth wall up in mothballs? Are public spaces really more dramatically authentic than well-tended playhouses?
Don’t let these nagging questions make you testy as you make your way through this issue. Yes, the writers in these pages seem blithely unconcerned with conventional notions of theatrical decorum as they delve deep into the methods and motivations of some of America’s most venturesome ensembles—troupes like the New York City–based Civilians, seen on the cover communing with the Temple of Dendur at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, where they’re performers in residence. In feature articles by arts reporter Stuart Miller (“Belly Up to the Bard”) and AT associate editor Diep Tran (“If These Walls Could Talk”), you’ll meet a gaggle of groups that deploy their histrionic assets in bracingly unconventional ways—some serious Shakespeareans surrounded by fans who are seriously drunk; documentarians imitating museum scholars right under the scholars’ noses; actors dressed up like figures in an Impressionist painting, communing with their likenesses.
Further along in the issue, contributors Lonnie Firestone and Sam Thielman upend some additional theatrical proprieties in their respective reports on outsized sports spectacles that critique the NFL’s injurious policies (“Head Shake and Heartbreak”) and a sassy new project about the Bible and how it earned its bona fides (“Arguing with ‘The Good Book’”). Eliza Bent’s Strategies column (“And the Band Played On”) even suggests that rock-music albums can make a juicy blueprint for collective playwriting. Sounds like you might soon be booking seats in stadiums, churches and discos, too.
But relax. Prosceniums endure. Realistic dramas continue to shield their kitchen sinks and parlor sofas from across-the-footlight intrusions. Nobody’s abandoning the black box, the thrust stage, the theatre-in-the-round. What is happening, though, is an eruption of theatrical energy that can’t be contained in these traditional spaces, that absorbs vitality and meaning from the other arts, that craves the spontaneity and uncertainty of spectator involvement. That’s the kind of theatre this issue spotlights.
“At the end of the day, museums and theatre are not so different,” Tran posits in her cover story. “Both are dedicated to the art of storytelling.” The same might be said for a whole range of other creative endeavors, whether they’re practiced on sports fields, in community settings, in places of worship, in classrooms, on the Internet, behind a camera, alone or with collaborators, for a thousand set of eyes or an audience of one. Sometimes a proscenium is a window to a magic world. Sometimes it’s superfluous.