Happy New Year! Starting today, I will begin providing you with some practical, actionable and (I hope) inspirational material for you to use in your path to becoming an independent artist during the coming year. If you know of anyone else who might find this blog useful, I hope that you will share it with them.
So I want to begin with Tip #0 — zero, because it is actually something you have to do before you begin moving forward. It is a foundational attitude necessary to begin your journey. Remember the beginning of Dorothy’s journey in The Wizard of Oz, when she is instructed to “follow the yellow brick road”? Her first steps on that journey actually take her in a spiral, not a straight line. Had she stopped after the first few steps, she would have found that she was facing in the opposite direction from where she wanted to go! But it was necessary for her to walk in a circle to shake off her natural sense of direction (Kansas is all about straight lines, right?) and open herself to a new approach. That’s what you need to do, too.
To start your journey, you have to forget everything you think you know about how theater is made. Only then will you be able to consider your creative life afresh.
French literary critic Roland Barthes referred to these underlying assumptions as “doxa,” the ideas that are “given,” that “go without saying.” They are the ideas that we absorb during our creative life that seem unquestionable, but they are also “single stories” that may be standing in the way of your following your creative path.
If you think that theater needs to be done in special buildings — forget that.
If you think that theater requires sets, lights, costumes, even multiple actors — forget that.
If you think that theater needs to be done in front of a particular audience — forget that.
If you think theater needs tickets and a box office — forget that.
If you think that theater needs a text — forget that.
If you think that theater needs to be nonprofit — forget that.
If you think that the goal of doing theater is fame — forget that.
All of these things may or may not be true — or at least, true for you — but they must be examined and consciously chosen, not inherited. The economist E. F. Shumacher, in his book Small Is Beautiful, wrote “All through our youth and adolescence, before the conscious and critical mind begins to act as a sort of censor and guardian at the threshold, ideas seep into our mind, vast hosts and multitudes of them. These years are, one might say, our Dark Ages during which we are nothing but inheritors: it is only in later years that we can gradually learn to sort out our inheritance.”
I suggest as a starting focal point the justly famous first sentences of Peter Brook’s seminal book The Empty Space:
“I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged.”
An empty space. A person on it. And one person to watch it. God, it’s so simple! And yet at the same time, so powerful.
So often, our inherited beliefs about what is required for “theatre to be engaged” serves as an obstacle for actual creation. The minute that we think, for instance, that if we want to do a play we will need to rent a theater because that’s where theater is supposed to happen in order to be taken “seriously” (by which we mean in order for us to be able to feel good about the time and effort required), we now must find the money to pay that rent, which requires that we work a day job that pays a salary high enough that we can save the surplus for that rent, or maybe we have to work a second job to get that money — but of course, those jobs take time from our day and energy from our mind, which is an obstacle to moving forward creatively. Then we decide that we need an “audience” of a certain number of people to cover that rent – I mean, who would want to do a play for one person, like Brook suggests? — and suddenly we require posters and ads and press releases and Facebook events and radio spots and all of these take more time and more money. Each additional assumption we have about what makes theater worthwhile requires more and more resources — resources like time and money, which in reality are essentially the same thing — and soon the product we’ve built requires high ticket prices (which affects who can see our play) and many, many spectators to even break even much less pay anybody and… well, you know how this ends: usually we lose just about everything we’ve sunk into creating this work of art. At the end, we’re likely exhausted, we’re probably poorer, and while we may be proud of what we’ve created, and enjoyed the people we had a chance to get to know (or maybe we didn’t) the amount of time it will take before we can gather all the resources needed to do the next project grows longer and longer.
So I say forget all that.
Consider Spalding Gray, who created powerful and poetic masterpieces with his words, a folding table, and a glass of water. Think of John Leguizamo, who played all of the characters in Mambo Mouth and Spic-O-Rama, and Eric Bogosian, whose one-man shows were absolutely brilliant. Eventually, they expanded their resources, and you can too — but when you do, you do so consciously.
Start from an empty space, an actor, and a spectator. And then consciously, purposefully add elements that you believe to be necessary with the complete knowledge and understanding of the effect of each choice on your creative life..
Unless you are homeless, you have everything you need right now to “engage theatre.” You can clear a space in your living room, your basement, your bedroom, your kitchen. You can move a couple chairs there for a spectator or two. You can do a 10-minute play, or perform a story from your life, read a short story, or…
The only thing that is stopping you is the voice in your head that says, “That’s not the way things are done.” That’s not the way they taught me in college, in high school, at the conservatory, on TV.
Forget that voice.
Start from zero.