Essay, Research Paper: Richard Schechner And New Theatre


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Richard Schechner envisions a “new theatre” in three of his major essays,
“Happenings” (1966), “Six Axioms for Environmental Theatre” (1968), and
“Negotiations with the Environment” (1968). He does not spend time
discussing his famed “not not themselves” ideology of the performer or
ritual ecstasy; instead he discusses a new genealogical hybrid termed the “new
theatre” by Allan Kaprow. Schechner uses the traditional theatre as a
comparison and first comments in “Happenings” “because it is unlike
traditional theatre, the familiar locutions of these arts, e.g., dance, music,
sculpture, painting cannot describe what’s going on or provide criteria for
which to evaluate it” (145). Still, Schechner does provide many a comparison
between the traditional theatre and this new form. Schechner recognizes that the
“theatrical event is a complex social interweave, a network of expectation and
obligation. The exchange of stimuli—either sensory or ideational or both—is
the root of theatre” (158). Knowing this, the author claims all theatre, both
traditional and new, is a set of related “transactions” (changes in outlook
and situation). How these transactions occur is what defines the art form. For
example the traditional theatre “works from an organic system of correlations
concerning character, story, and locale. Likewise, Susanne K. Langer states,
traditional theatre “runs on a continuum of past and future as parts,” (147)
organic parts developing the situation.” It involves a series of
understandable transactions. However, the new theatre lacks this destiny of
time. “There the referents to everyday life are purely functions of sounds,
textures, and images” (147). Schechner basically breaks down all the major
components of the traditional theatre in a comparison with the new theatre. To
start, the traditional theatre involves plot as a means of telling a story, but
the new theatre involves images/events. There are three kinds of new theatre as
Schechner describes in “Happenings”: the technological, essentially
electronic event (a la John Cage concerts), the free-for-all happenings or party
gone wild in which the event is roughly sketched by the author, a group of
people are told to do something and another group is invited to
watch/participate, and the “ceremony” (a la Kaprow) in which the
participants are given a set of instructions which they are not to improvise on
but simply do. “All three kinds share autonomy and revitalization.”
“Disconnections are made so that the isolated event or image can be seen in
itself, seen as revitalized” (154). Schechner points out that the traditional
theatre is action whereas the new theatre is about activity. In “Negotiations
with the Environment” he further makes the distinction that the activity is
usually “self-documentational” (197). As well the traditional theatre
supports resolution, however the new theatre thrives on open-ended ness. For
this reason, “shows tend to be often unrepeated and unrepeatable” (147)--
for how can you repeat something that will give you a very different result.
Likewise, the traditional theatre revolves around themes/thesis, however in new
theatre there is no pre-set meaning. “When audiences exist they are left to
themselves to put together or make sense out of what’s happening” (148).
Therefore, the meaning can be almost anything, and everyone will most certainly
have a different impression. The traditional theatre is oriented around roles;
the actor is the most important figure. “He ‘becomes’ a human being other
than himself” (149). The new theatre, on the contrary, is task oriented.
People are themselves simply doing something. Their job is not to build roles or
circumstances in which they are ‘justified’ (149). This lends itself to
intermedia performances in which “the production elements need no longer
support a performance” (163). At certain times these elements are more
important than the performers and so a new term “performing technicians”
(163) is created. The performers are then free to be treated “as mass and
volume, color and texture, and movement—not as ‘actors’ but as parts of
the environment” (178). Like the set and text, they are a part of the piece,
not taking focus, but just facilitating. Schechner points out that the
traditional theatre revolves around a stage, which is not necessarily true of
the new theatre. The new theatre tries to reach beyond the boundaries of space.
Allan Kaprow is quoted in “Negotiations with the Environment as saying, “it
doesn’t make any difference how large the space is, it’s still a stage.
It’s pretty comfortable working in the middle, but as soon as you get to the
edges you have to stop, I didn’t feel like stopping” (181). Schechner, then,
in “Axioms of the Environmental Theatre,” spends much time on two specific
axioms referring to Kaprow’s edges, “all space is used for performance”
and “the theatrical event can take place in totally transformed space or found
space.” Schechner remarks that in “traditional theatre a ‘special place’
is marked off within the theatre for performance, but in new theatre the space
is organically defined by the action” (165-6). “Once one gives up fixed
seating and the bifurcation of space, entirely new relationships are possible”
(167) fostering a sense of shared experience among the group This experience can
be achieved through transformed space in which the participants, using whatever
materials are available and placing them wherever form the unplanned set (171)
where the action will take place or something called found space. Found space
involves the given elements of any space—its architecture, textural qualities,
acoustics, and so on are to be explored. The random ordering of space is valid.
The function of scenery, if used, is to point up not disguise or transform the
space. Lastly, the spectator may suddenly create new special possibilities
(172-3). Some have considered Freedom Marches examples of found spaces.
Schechner states in his “Negotiations with the Environment,” “a found
space was interesting; found people were found alive” (186). So then is the
traditional theatre found dead?--Perhaps dead in terms of new energies. In the
traditional theatre the actors go by a script and the result is a product,
however in the new theatre it’s free form, a process, one specific idea
isn’t beaten to death. The text need not be the starting point (axiom 6).
“You don’t do the play; you do with it—confront it, search among the words
and themes, build around and through it. . . and come out with your own thing”
(180). Whereas the traditional theatre places emphasis on flow and clarity, the
new theatre can be tangential and, somewhat chaotic, exploring many facets at
once, creating something entirely “new”. Similarly, the traditional theatre
is single focused, showing the audience where they should cast their gaze. This
is not true of the new theatre where, according to axiom four, the “focus is
flexible and variable” (175). “Multi-focus will not reach every spectator in
the same way” (175). Again, the spectator is free to interpret what’s going
on. As well, using local focus only a fraction of the audience can see or hear.
However, “real body contact and whispered communication are possible between
the performer and spectator” (176). Local whirlpools of action make the
theatrical line more complex and varied. The last comparison Schechner makes
between the two forms of theatre involves the audience. In traditional theatre
the audience watches, but in new theatre the audience participates or is
non-existent. Environmental theatre involves the art of participation, a
celebration of sorts (184). For Schechner and many others it can be a spiritual
journey in which all involved share the idea that if people would see again,
feel again—not as they did in the historic past, but as each one of us did as
a child—then things would get better (155). There are the ritual elements that
comprise Schechner’s work in Between Theatre and Anthropology. Is the new
theatre, then, more spiritual than the traditional theatre? That is not for me
to decide but for those involved. Certainly, the new theatre fosters new
involvements and new ideas—variations on space, time, and focus. Yet, we
cannot judge which is better for they are two very different art forms. The
theatre world is enhanced and enriched by new developments like the “new”
theatre. Hopefully, both will be around for a very long time.
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