All Over Creation: Assumptions and Definitions

Seeing what's new in theatre requires letting go of old notions

<i>The Schooling of Bento Bonchev</i>
The Schooling of Bento Bonchev (Courtesy of Will Hollis Snider)

I don't know why I was expecting a Siberian winter.

I mean, I've seen enough theatre to know that you can't be absolutely sure of what you're going to see before you see it, that every production can hold surprises whether they're in the script or the staging or the performances. And I've learned enough about Russian theatre to know that it can't be encapsulated in the work of a single artist, even one as gifted as Anton Chekhov. And yet, as I approached the weekend of the 2012 New Russian Drama Festival, with its full staging of a new play by Maksym Kurochkin and readings of two others by him, plus the reading of a play by an American who's covered theatre for The Moscow Times for 20 years, some part of me was steeling for a two-day exile to someplace distant, dark, and frosty. I assumed I was in for a blizzard of Chekhov – scratch that, of poorly done Chekhov, the leaden, ponderous versions that bleed all life from the characters as written and leave them dreary, droning dullards.

Of course, the plays were nothing of the sort. They were bristling with energy and urgency and raced along through slyly inventive comic territories. Kurochkin's The Schooling of Bento Bonchev beamed us into a future when love and sex not only don't exist but are viewed as the mysterious, primitive, and downright repulsive rituals of unenlightened times. (Breaking String Theater's highly entertaining production continues at the Off Center through March 31 and is well worth your time.) The same author's Vodka, Fucking, and Television allows a frustrated writer to argue with personifications of the three vices he feels are distracting him from his work. John Freedman's Dancing, Not Dead had an actor break the fourth wall with a lengthy harangue about the writer's decision to have him play different characters without distinguishing one from the other. These plays' irreverence, imagination, and immediacy were so familiar and engaging that if I hadn't already known they were minted in Moscow, I might have taken them for plays created locally. And to think I'd nearly written them off as dismal knockoffs of Chekhov.

That Monday, I attended the South by Southwest Interactive panel Performance and Technology: Keeping Arts Alive and heard local theatre artist and technologist Robert Matney introduce the notion of digital interactive theatre as a new species of performance. To clear away any misconceptions that term might conjure in the crowd – say, of lame plays where actors perform before screens full of graphics cribbed from Tron – Matney laid out exactly what he meant by digital interactive theatre. Having seen the Skype-driven transatlantic theatre piece You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in London/You Wouldn't Know Him, He Lives in Texas, for which Matney served as one of the tech jockeys, I had a feel for the kind of work he was describing: a fusion of real-time performances and digital technology at the play's creative core, with both elements integral to the theatrical experience. Still, I appreciated the way Matney's definition gave everyone in the room a shared foundation with which to envision this new theatrical form being promoted.

Then Matney stressed to the attendees that he was defining theatre in its broadest sense, and something clicked in my head, something linked to what I'd gone through with the Russian drama festival. When we approach creative work, it's so easy to think we know what kind of work is being made and then engage with it – or more pointedly, not engage with it – based on that understanding. But we may be acting on assumptions, ones rooted in ideas that are incomplete or outdated or just flat-out wrong. And in relying on them, we may be cheating ourselves out of thrilling, fulfilling artistic experiences – as I nearly did with the New Russian Drama Festival if my expectation of a rehash of old Russian drama (or my worst nightmares of old Russian drama) had kept me away. We need to be mindful of when we might be working from obsolete information or attitudes and make a point of updating ourselves. Let's take a page from Matney's book and create new definitions for what we're seeing, striving for clarity and a language common to all. Let us use terms in their broadest senses, too. The more open we are, the more easily we can see possibilities.

Therein lies the point to this: Theatre, like all the arts, is constantly evolving, and if we want to keep up with it as it changes, we need to be able to see all the form can do, all the directions it can go. That may mean a play from Russia that fractures time or a play performed with an electronic hookup joining actors – and audiences – an ocean apart. Whatever it is, it deserves to be judged on its own terms rather than those of a real or imagined past. Let go of the old, and hit that mental refresh button to engage with something new.

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New Russian Drama Festival, Maksym Kurachkin, John Freedman, The Schooling of Bento Bonchev, Robert Matney, You Wouldn't Know Her, She Lives in London

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