The Matter of Time

Well, this is one the most supremely fascinating things I’ve read all year. It is also, in a very literal and non-hyperbolic sense, awe-inspiring. It inspires awe.

Long story short: there is a clock being built, inside of a mountain, that will tick for 10,000 years. But you should go read the whole thing, believe me. There’s even a robot with a chainsaw arm, just to spice things up in the middle.

“Over the lifetime of this clock, the United States won’t exist,” Bezos tells me. “Whole civilizations will rise and fall. New systems of government will be invented. You can’t imagine the world — no one can — that we’re trying to get this clock to pass through.”

I think that, in theatre, we have a very schizophrenic relationship with the immediate. We want to make things that last, obviously; we want to create experiences that resonate, that live on when they’re done, that fundamentally become a part of people’s lives. If we’re playwrights, we want more than one production, a lot of the time; we mostly want to pen words that will carry down and be found relevant through time, and space. We want to last.

Of course, we can’t. Our works can’t either. Certainly not on the scale that the makers of this clock are talking about. Theatre is about immediacy. It’s about the moment; it’s about a shared communal experience of story and catharsis and fleeting togetherness that is so great exactly because it can’t be repeated. It’s what we all love about it, but it guarantees that anyone writing with “posterity” in mind is going to fail, more often than not.

At its best, a great show can be a pebble in someone’s shoe for the rest of their lives: quietly niggling, never quite settling, it can echo in their actions and can even change their behaviors, but it can’t stand as a monument unto the ages. It just doesn’t have that kind of power, or intent, behind it. It’s not one of the tools.

So on first glance, after reading an article like that, it seems a little silly to me that we’re running around on painted, temporary sets speaking words few will ever hear while out in the desert of Texas these clockmakers are building an apparatus that will quite possibly last longer than our entire species. It’s a humbling realization, and it’s even a little shaming, because how do you measure up against ten millenia? What kind of ambition can we have in the face of that sort of time, if we’re just trying to put together a show for next season?

But that’s the beauty of the clock: it’s not about the clock. It’s about the theatrics of the clock. And, really, the way that the clock is employed has a whole lot in common with what we do as theatre artists. (Minus the robo-chainsaw. For now.) Building this clock isn’t about the people/beings who may/may not find it 10,000 years from now. It’s entirely about us, in this moment, and the attempt to make an impact on the way that we live our lives. For one thing: it’s gigantic. It’s inside of a mountain. It’s shiny and pretty and there’s a big spiral staircase you take to walk all the way up it. It’s grand and immense and fantastic, and designed specifically to take your breath away. It’s theatrical in the way a cathedral is theatrical. And then, there’s this passage from the article:

To conserve energy, and to encourage visitor participation, [the clock] won’t actually display the current time on its face most of the time. Instead, the face will show the time and date (and the corresponding position of the stars and planets) of the last person’s visit to the clock, whether that was yesterday or 300 years ago. If you want to view the current time, you’ll need to turn a wheel near the clock face, which advances the clock’s dials, moving through time until it automatically clicks to a stop at the present moment:


The point of the clock isn’t to make something that lasts 10,000 years. It’s to make us, right now, think about what 10,000 years means, and to help us realize that as vast as that length of time is, we’re a part of it. We’re in the continuum. And we’re connected to everyone else in the stream, and we can see that by simply turning a wheel and leaving our mark for the next participant. We can take a hike through the desert, walk up a staircase, marvel at something that’s going to last exponentially longer than us, and we can then directly participate in its existence, and put our own little timestamp on its face.

Then we can go back outside, and walk back to our cars, and drive home to our relatively short lives. But if we visit the clock, then we’ll have one more pebble in our shoe, slightly changing our gait. We’ll have a big, quiet ticking in the back of our minds, reminding us that we have a place in the cosmos.

Sounds like a pretty awesome piece of theatre, I’d say.

Building vs. Excavation

I guess I shouldn’t be shocked that one of the Pixar guys has great thoughts on storytelling:

Yeah, I looked at things like “Apocaplyto” and “Rome” and even things like “Shogun” and “Lawrence of Arabia,” things that as a viewer I could accept as having a level of historical research. They give me a sense of what it would be like in that land and in that age. So then you ask, “Well, what if we just did our Martian research really, really well and treated it as a period film.”

Having created universes from scratch before, that can consume all of your time and the character/plot child gets neglected. This allowed us not to sweat all that stuff and go straight to character.

A lot of emphasis, especially in genre fiction, gets put on world-building as a be-all-end-all kind of thing. There’s something magisterial about the image of the Great Author, alone in his room, conjuring up existences and laying them out for his readers to see. The semantics of that idea are a little off, though, and Stanton pretty much nails why for me: what impresses us about storytelling isn’t world building, it’s world revealing.

You can have the most rich, detailed, consistent reality ever built in your mind’s eye, but that doesn’t mean you have a story. What it means is that you have a foundation, a backdrop, and a starting point. The hard part is channeling that information through a lens that people actually want to pay attention to. Think of it in Star Wars terms. (Most of life’s issues can be solved by thinking of them in Star Wars terms.) George Lucas made three movies that expertly hinted at a meaningful, established and important cultural mythology, and they were great. Then he made another three movies whose express purpose was to explain that mythology, and before you could say “midichlorians” everybody lost interest. Baby Anakin didn’t help, either.

World building is tricky, because as a creator you can let it consume you. There’s always more to do, after all, and you love the things you come up with and the clever solutions you find. But you can spend so much time tinkering with the physics that you forget the interactions. Before you know it you just have a bunch of people on stage giving dissertations to each other, and then you wonder why nobody in the audience is as intrigued as you are. Nobody cares about a character’s history unless that history has a direct impact on what they’re doing right that second. Even Tolkein’s publishers wouldn’t publish the Silmarillion until a) he’d sucked everyone in with adorable hobbitses and b) he was dead.

I love A Princess of Mars and I love Andrew Stanton. What I love even more is the fact that Andrew Stanton, who also loves A Princess of Mars, was willing to take the world Burroughs made as a given, and spend all his time focusing on the actual story instead of sweating the small stuff. It gives me lots of hope that this will be a great adaptation, because it’s being approached in just the right way, by what seems to be just the right guy for the job. (Plus: purty pictures!)

Presentation is Everything

I love writing for theatre because your words aren’t the be-all, end-all of the experience. The chance to collaborate with talented actors, directors and designers means that you’re getting contributions from all sides (in mind-bending 3D!), and they bring a script to life in ways that you could only ever dream of. Get the right actor, and you can even make the 50 worst video-game voice acting examples of all time to be entertaining.

And, coming off a week-long workshop of Paper City Phoenix (with the astoundingly wonderful Orfeo Group), I’m thinking about presentation even more, because this is a play with even more facets to consider than normal. It’s about the Internet (I mean that literally: the Internet is a character), and involves projections, video work, and special effects that probably don’t make it the most producible thing in the world, but hopefully will make it entertaining once it gets on its feet. There’s a lot of info to give to the audience, because the play deals with the nature of information itself, but the possibilities for that information are fun to think about. Lately, I’ve been considering the possibilities of kinetic text, as displayed in this rather relevant video:

And also good old-fashioned flow-charts (involving Dickensian orphans).

Of course, all those bells and whistles come later. The wonderful reminder from the Orfeo workshop was that a play is, at its heart, an interaction: the give-and-take between characters in a moment when they all want something from each other and are doing their best to get it. Putting it up on its feet for three days gave me a chance to process all of those interactions, and take a look at the various character actions from all different angles, as they were happening in front of me. Because if the human element isn’t squared away, and each moment isn’t thoroughly interesting just as an interpersonal event, then no projection design in the world can save you.

Presentation also matters when it comes to criticism: it’s easier to listen to honest, open critiques of characters and situations when they’re being given to you by actors you’ve spent fifteen hours with already, who you have a rapport with and who you know beyond a doubt are invested in making the best play possible. The same note sounds very different coming from someone like that as opposed to, say, your mother, or a random audience member at a reading (not that those inputs aren’t valuable too, Mom).

So much of what we do is subjective, right down to how we think about the pieces we create; a bit of indigestion that occurs during writing time can result in entire scenes being scrapped. The only real way to succeed is to be as cognizant as possible about what you’re trying to say in each moment, and make sure there isn’t a single wasted beat, action or item on-stage. The more cleanly you present your ideas, the more likelihood there is that people will engage with the work on its own terms.

True Techno-Theatre

Technology makes a lot possible in theatre. As a staff and ensemble member of a theatre company based in a city I do not currently reside in, I can certainly attest to that. Without e-mail, Skype and cheap calling plans, I could literally not be doing the job that I’m doing right now: telegrams and pony express do not a dramaturgical foundation make. Theatrical administrative practices have been changing massively and– for the most part– positively in response to technology, just as administrative practices in all business everywhere have.

Where it seems like theatre occasionally has a harder time relating with technology is in the actual, y’know, theatre that we produce. A lot of times, adding Twitter or other mediums to performances can feel a bit more like a gimmick than anything else; we’re still negotiating how it all fits together, and sometimes don’t really go for it.. Which is why this article by Jo Caird is exciting to me: it’s talking about a genuine attempt to use social networking and internet response to create a new event:

You Wouldn’t Know Him, He Lives in Texas / You Wouldn’t Know Her, She Lives in London, which is performed simultaneously at theatres in the two eponymous locations via Skype, is a collaboration between London-based Look Left Look Right and The Hidden Room, a company based in Austin. The premise is that transatlantic couple Liz and Ryan have brought their friends and family together so that everyone can get to know each other and make the pair feel less like their relationship exists only in virtual reality. The audience, both those physically in attendance and anyone who’s following the performance on Twitter (by using the #texaslondon hashtag) and Facebook, are encouraged to take part by asking questions and posting comments during the show.

There have been a lot of shows that use/incorporate Twitter or, as Caird points out, are performed entirely on Twitter as a platform. But what makes You Wouldn’t Know Him… stand out for me is the fact that it is literally weaving the experience of twitter, Skype and the like into the premise and experience of the show, instead of just grafting them on. Caird acknowledges that there are some issues with the outcome, but from this article the use of technology in the show strikes me as something other than a gimmick.

Everybody always talks about how one of the biggest strengths of theatre is its immediacy. “You’re right there in the room as it happens!” they enthuse. Or, at least, I do. It’s one of my favorite things about the stage. But in this crazy modern world, the baseline definition of what “in the room” means is changing. We can take part in conversations we’re not physically there for, so why not theatre?

Often, attempts to film plays and post them online (or display them in movie theatres) can feel alienating, but what seems so brilliant about this attempt is that Skype/Twitter/etc. isn’t the sole experiential medium of it. Instead, it’s the connective tissue of the experience: it’s being used to link two performances together, along with their own two live audiences. It’s almost more similar to The Norman Conquests or other plays that can occur simultaneously, except each audience gets a technological window into the half of the show they’re not there for. It’s pretty ingenious, and even if it isn’t perfect, it feels like something very much on the right path to figuring out how theatre can blend with all the communication methods available to us these days.

Looking to the Future

There’s already been a huge amount said about Michael Kaiser’s “Millennials Project” article (shortened version: Old Man Yells at Cloud), much of it spot on. It was really baffling to me to see someone as generally savvy as Kaiser come across as such an ageist, elitist cliche, but now that he’s been thoroughly dismantled elsewhere, us Millennials need to remember that the only truly satisfying rebuttal will be to prove him completely wrong by continuing to make theatre that excites and engages our peers. To that end, Max Sparber has a great post detailing just what an opportunity we’re going to have to do so in the next few years:

Many of the artistic directors of these theaters are now nearing retirement age. Other theaters swap out their artistic directors every decade or so, just as a matter of course. And you could take one of those jobs. Yes, you. Because the people who are most likely to get plugged into those positions are the people who can figure out how to rebuild the audience for American theater. If you can sell seats to a younger audience, you’re going to control the future.

It’s easy to forget that “establishment” theatre in this country has really only existed for one, maybe one-and-a-half generations. The whole non-profit, regional system seems so monolithic and all-encompassing that we treat it like it’s always been there, and take its continuing value for granted. Michael Kaiser falls prey to it, and so do I a lot of days, but the time is coming for the guard to change over, and those of us who protest being written off by guys like Kaiser to really step into the forefront. There’s lots of fantastic theatre being done by our generation, for our generation, and as Sparber says, pretty soon everybody making that brand theatre is going to get a chance to really run the show. With any luck we’ll be able to make the transition from spitballing to steering the ship, and when we’re all old and crotchety in fifty years we won’t be sitting alone in our offices, embarrassing ourselves by writing articles about how nobody loves what we love any more.