What is Art Today?

Story-telling has always been a critical part of the human experience. Since the beginning of people gathering together with common language or understanding, humans have shared stories of their experiences. The question of why we do this has been the subject of many thinkers through the ages. Joseph Campbell, mentioned in a previous post, is just one of many who dedicated significant portions of their lives in the pursuit of understanding this human impulse. One thing has become very clear over time: that is, stories may have certain qualities that attain a certain timelessness, but even the most insightful tale of an era will eventually be unintelligible to the average listener.

As a prime example, despite theatre’s obsession with the bard, the works of Shakespeare have long passed relevance to the typical human being living today. This is not to speak ill of Shakespeare. His plays contain ideas that have stood the test of time for a reason, and those that take the time to understand the social context and the colloquialisms of the time are well rewarded. For the typical person, though, without this depth of knowledge of a time they frankly have no reason to need to know about in such detail, Shakespeare seems a strange relic held to lofty standards they can’t grasp.

Why is this?

Theatre, art, storytelling – it is a transient experience, shared most ideally closest to when it performed. The moment a story is first told its relevance begins to die. Peter Brook touches on this idea in The Empty Space. In his conclusion he discusses the immediate theatre; the theatre that reaches that perfect moment of connection between story and audience and performer. That moment of connection is what many who pursue a lifetime of performing are chasing the feeling of. It is the immediacy of being there, in that place, in that time, experiencing that story together uniquely in a way nobody else ever will.

This kind of connection is sorely lacking in most media presented for consumption today. Theatre has become, largely, a shell of what it was – mostly now a place for the elite to go and revel in how much more culturally refined they are, much like the opera. There are pockets of true theatre everywhere, still struggling to live off the scraps they are given, but the state is dire at a glance.

Only at a glance.

This will require some context first, so bear with me. What is theatre? Theatre is the evolution of community story-telling. Western theatre rose from Greece, where the people would come together and share stories of ancient heroes and gods. The legendary first actor Thespis stepped forward from the chorus line and spoke as one of the characters, setting in motion the creation of what we now know as Western theatre. Before that, though, it was just people coming together, telling stories as one might sitting by the campfire. Here’s the trick: people are still doing this today. It’s just that the old forms have been mostly found unsuitable.

The playhouse of Shakespeare’s time was a very different place than today’s theater. It probably better resembled a sporting event, with people calling out to the stage, vendors roaming about, and the smell of spilled beer filling the air. Today this sort of community gathering is usually filtered through a lens of commercialism. Sports arenas are plastered with advertisements and flashing screens to bombard you with messages of “BUY THIS THING”. People still crave the true connection, though, and they don’t always understand what is missing in their lives. Human beings are very social creatures, we need to feel like we belong no matter how much we want to deny it. These people trying to push their products on the populace are exploiting that piece of human nature, and it’s taking its toll on the mental well being of all.

People are resilient, though. Art always finds a way.

To get to the point of my post, though: where is this kind of art now? Where have the storytellers gone?

On twitch.tv every Thursday night, a handful of voice actors get together and play a game of Dungeons and Dragons for a live audience. On the surface, Critical Role is a fun show where some actors get to goof off with a fun game for a few hours a night. Dive into the community, though, and begin watching the videos, and you will quickly see that there is a deeply involved story here that sometimes has very intense emotional highs and lows. They deal with issues such as coping with finding your identity, feeling like you don’t belong in your body, trying to overcome traumas of your past, accepting that sometimes the world throws terrible things at you and you have to find a way to pick up the pieces. They also broadcast an interview series, Between the Sheets, and in a recent interview with Amanda Palmer she mentioned that Matt Mercer (the dungeon master, who acts as the storyteller for the players who each run a character in the game) had referred to the show as theatre.

To quote the gist of her reaction: “Fuck, of course it is.”

How did I not see it before? This is a troupe of actors putting on a long-form improvised piece with dungeons and dragons as their format. Pull down the full screen so you can see the chat flying by, and there’s the pit of Shakespeare’s day in all it’s hideous glory. There is a medium, once again, for the immediate theatre to find a new audience, and the answer lies in the technologies that were thought to be spelling it’s doom.

If theatre wants to live, it is well past time to adapt to the changing of the times.

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