Theatre Today: Time to look further than entertainment! (PART ONE)

As an actor, no matter where I am, someone will always ask me this exact question in one form or another, whether it be a serious question or said rhetorically as maybe a pathetic jab at the career I’m currently pursuing, and that my ambitions lie in a cause deemed ‘un-academic’ by many these days; “What is the future of theatre?”

Indeed, this question is the spawn of concerned minds of many involved in different aspects of Western theatre in particular, as we continue sway in the direction of entertainment through ‘mainstream media’, and in my eyes, the safe option that many are not only encouraged to take, but in a lot of ways FORCED into producing, for a culture that generally enjoys the compromise our media creates between the spontaneous, and the comfortably organised.

Now before anyone reads further, I want to make it perfectly clear that this isn’t just the random, brash and unstructured outburst of an actor against the broadcasting and theatrical hierarchy in place today. The modern man not only has the chance to marvel at an ever-evolving world where technology has the ability to bend and re-create the fabrics of reality through the lens of a camera, but also the power to make such phantasmagorical twists in reality to seem plausible to their astonished onlookers, and this, I whole-heartedly admire and enjoy. Therefore, my views have no particular bias or preference toward either the camera or the stage.

Moving on then, for all those cynics out there who may dub the theatre to be an embarrassingly dated and primitive alternative to the world of modern cinema, I ask this question; what is theatre to you?

The modern theatre-goer, in my eyes, sees the stage’s function as something that coexists with the modern media to fulfill the objective of all we see and hear off on TV, Film or in Radio. From documentaries to sci-fi, drama to romance, the theatre exists as the device we all look to when our desire to work and compete is temporarily overridden for that period where we want nothing more than to be pleased by some visual and acoustic flattery of our existence. With this, once again, I do not have any qualms with.

But time, I think, to wind back the clocks around 150 years, and to a time where theatre was not just one of the dominant forms of entertainment, but had a remarkably important influence and standing in society. This is a time, through a period of around 100 years, that saw some of the most influential theatre practitioners and playwrights place their territories in an industry that was fast becoming the platform for social and political revolution, a revolution that had had its roots embedded long ago in theatre.

This, of course, was a particularly important and intense period in Europe that was seeing many changes outside of the theatre. The Soviet Union was in the early stages of asserting their scientific dominance during a time of political uneasiness, and at the same time France was still seeing itself stuck in the depths of revolution. For these two nations in particular, theatre began to become the platform for political debate and discussion, and in some cases, hostile takeover, and it is on the basis of the events that took place in the theatrical worlds of these two countries, that I want to propose my vision of how our theatre should be.

It is not the political tide of the time, or the almost anarchic nature of all of those involved and immersed in those politics that I think should be emulated. What I want to see re-created is the pivotal role that the theatre played in society.

The stage right now is a canvas waiting to be drawn upon, and in the modern world we only seem willing to add either the tiniest flecks of exploratory ideas and visions to it, or conjure a fantastically vivid picture that entertains our audiences and allows practitioners and writers to sit there contently that only covers a corner of the canvas it is drawn upon.

Is it that we are afraid to see what the full picture theatre could potentially be? Is it too risky and too brash for practitioners to express their own beliefs politically and psychologically in a way that may only end up pleasing them but shocking others?

This is what I will explore in part two of this article. I will be looking at some of the most famous and influential practitioners from past times, how their work shaped theatre as it is today, and how using the theatre as a platform for more than just pleasing an audience, but also as a basis for political discussion and social debate, could affect our nation for better or for worse.

By: Robert Pritchard