On the passion, power, and responsibility of theatre-goers

Arts on Sunday

This discourse on the power and social responsibility of theatre-goers by Desryn Jones-Collins was written in response to the ‘Arts on Sunday’  feature ‘A Season of Theatre’ published in Sunday Stabroek on January 13, 2013.  She argues that the role of theatre to transform society and the audience’s responsibility is to demand quality and insist that that role is performed.  How valid is the claim that good playwrights do not write messages or preach morals? – “If you want to send a message, don’t write a play; go to Western Union.”

By Desryn Jones-Collins

Desryn Jones-Collins is a linguist and lecturer in Education and Literature, attached to the Antigua State College.

Who goes to the theatre? Why do these people choose to spend two or more irredeemable hours watching a play or other dramatic performance by players on a stage? What collective responsibility do theatre-goers have to themselves, to the national culture and the development of the dramatic art form? These are questions which may, without careful consideration, appear to be frivolous, but the responses to these questions are critical to the evolution of stage performances and the development of what can be called “a season of theatre.” But even more important than the development of a season are the nature and purpose of that season.

20130210alWhat should a season of theatre engender and whose responsibility is it to ensure that it fulfils a distinct and desirable purpose?
Is it the players and the playwright? Is it the producer and sponsors? These are, no doubt, most likely answers to the question but the audience is the most significant holder of power and responsibility in this case.

Theatre audiences have the collective responsibility of demanding fare that is not merely plentiful and entertaining, but precious and enriching; not just topical but justifiably incisive and analytical; not only produced for the stage in the current era but so skilfully crafted that audiences of another era and any human place would have as transformative an experience as the original audience.

Theatre audiences are a complex mix of motives, manners, and means, but the members are arguably united by common choice, forever fused by a common experience. This fact alone can be utilized in forming bands of commendation or protest. But a theatre audience is not a homogeneous group and is therefore worthy of analysis. Historically, theatre evolved from being the exclusive pastime of the affluent and cultured to being a form created and enjoyed by people of lesser means. Thus backyard theatre was produced and enjoyed with pride and passion. In Guyana, theatre going is an activity that connects the consummate lover of the art form who eagerly awaits the next Theatre Guild production and the casual viewer who just wants to be some place and has the required theatre fee and time to burn.

Generally, casual visitors to the theatre just want to be entertained. They are not aware or concerned that the experience is only deceptively ephemeral. Blissfully unaware that what is viewed and heard enters the mind and transforms the individual in subtle ways, they dress up and go to the theatre and to them that is where it ends. This is far from the truth. The effects of the experience are not immediate or tangible but they are real and can either ennoble or defile the participants. Casual visitors, by virtue of lack of knowledge and commitment, may be absolved of their responsibility.

Consciously committed theatre-goers are relatively few and while there are some members of this group who undoubtedly just want to be entertained, there are certainly others who go to the theatre fully aware of the transformative potential of the experience. Quantity and quality are crucial elements in the transformative process. Committed members of the audience know that the producer, writer and cast of tragedy, comedy or whatever hybrid performance is created, engages them in a transaction that ultimately transforms them, impacts society and the collective consciousness. Culture is derived from what is devised. This group of committed theatre-goers seem, however, to be tragically unaware that they have a certain power and attendant responsibility to ensure that the transaction they engage in with producers and performances is one that guarantees development. These theatre-goers cannot, and should not, be absolved of this responsibility.

The passion that draws a person to performance after performance should also repel them when producers, playwrights and cast do not measure up to their own past performance or what is excellent for performances in the genre. They ought to be repelled and verbally storm the Bastille of mediocre performances, stirring even the casual theatre-goers to speak for quantity and quality. Indifference and apathy are the shields of mediocrity and stagnation. Theatre-goers have the power to generate more than just a ‘Season of Theatre’; they have the power, by virtue of their passion to make that season consistently luminous.

Discarding apathy and indifference is critical to the development of the art form and national culture. It is, therefore, a responsibility to self. Individual theatre goers, aware that by beholding, by engaging in what is by no means a passive experience, should consider themselves and the national culture too valuable, too precious to be subjected to what is stultifying and debased.

Theatre is transformative. Should it not be used to engender positive change in the individual and society?
Some may argue that productions are complex artifacts of the political, socio-economic and religious framework.

Demanding quantity and quality in a ‘season of theatre’ is to ignore  these forces.  Furthermore, they may argue that the audience is merely there to witness the product of the interaction of these forces over which neither producers nor players have any control.

If what is produced is not positively transformative by virtue of quantity and quality it is merely a reflection of the forces and the wider culture of the framework. This argument denies the possibility of change and the efficacy and power of the collective human will.

That theatre goers have the power and responsibility to shape performances may seem to be idealistic, naïve or even unreasonable, but unless that responsibility is acknowledged and embraced, growth, if any, will continue to be slow and impoverished.

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