Monday, 1. June 2015 0:05
Much has been written about the place of live theatre in the contemporary world. Part of what is interesting about that topic is the artist-audience connection in the 21st century. Two things have brought this to mind recently. The first was an article in The Telegraph about award-winning playwright and screenwriter Sir Tom Stoppard. In the article, Stoppard complained that he had to rewrite a scene in his newest play, The Hard Problem, three times “making a particular allusion more and more obvious each time.” He says that over the last 40 years the audience’s knowledge of Shakespearean drama (to which Stoppard makes constant references) has steadily declined to the point that such knowledge is almost non-existent. For Stoppard this is a devastating turn of events.
The second incident was Kneehigh’s recent production of Tristan & Yseult as part of the Alley Theatre’s 2014-15 season. This production was arguably the best piece of theatre to have been presented in the Houston area for a number of years, yet many potential audience members chose not to attend. Some that I talked to said they had planned to skip the production simply because of the title; some because of the description: a tale of an ancient Cornish love triangle, the same love triangle that appears with different names in the literature of many different cultures and countries, classic and archetypal in every way.
Like Stoppard, most artists give meaning to their work through reference and allusion both consciously and subconsciously, and most assume that their audiences will “get it.” If they don’t, a large part of the complexity of the work will be lost, and even though the work may be engaging, even entertaining, it will not be perceived in its complete fullness, with all the overtones and undertones.
What happens when the audience does not have the classical education to understand the references and allusions in the production? Stoppard’s choice is to rewrite and dumb it down.
Tristan & Yseult, on the other hand, was in no way dumbed-down. Audiences did not have to have a classic education to understand and appreciate the show. Such an education enriched the experience, but was completely unnecessary, because the creative team moved past verbal allusions and, incorporating broad references to both historical and modern western culture, employing not only acting, but music, dance, and elements of circus. This group brought a very old mythic, archetypal story to a very new audience with all the meaning and immediacy that is possible. In fact, Theatermania said that the show was “a sensory feast. Each design detail is integral to the story, and brilliantly put to use by Rice and her cast. By the end you’ll be willing to follow them anywhere, be it Cornwall, Ireland, or beyond. The performances are incredibly committed. Kneehigh is the gold standard of theatrical rigor, fortified by a heavy dose of fun.”
While we might take issue with an educational system that leaves an audience ignorant of Shakespeare and other classics, the fact is that today’s audiences lack that background. This lack of classic education and inability to grasp allusions and references is not something that impacts only dramatic arts. Serious visual and plastic artists must deal with it as well.
And there are choices in how we, as artists, deal with it. We can, like Stoppard, rewrite and dumb-down things until the audience “gets it,” or, like Kneehigh, find new ways to present material that connects today’s audience directly to meaning, regardless of how classical or archetypal that might be.