Apr 20, 2011

The Sweat and Spit of Life

Michael Shannon and Shannon Cochran in Bug

George Hunka speaks eloquently to some truths in a post titled "Theatre as sanctuary," though I'm not prepared to follow him as far as he goes here:
For theatre to be considered as a sanctuary for metaphysical speculation, it is necessary to repudiate that outside world once again, and this time, because the Culture Industry has infested nearly every aspect of our lives, with keen uncompromising energy. Theatre then becomes a spiritual exercise and not a form of entertainment as defined by that Industry. This will be difficult — every element of the theatrical economy, from playwright to producer to reviewer to spectator, conspires against such an approach to drama and theatre. It is not “fun.” No, it is not. And theatre should make no apology for that. Some things should not be fun — and this is a statement that, in this urban culture, trespasses into the terrain of the criminal. Fun can always be sought elsewhere; there are outlets enough for it.
This is so baldly stated as to verge on self-parody, except that I know George is entirely in earnest, and, after all, to each his own aesthetic. He backs this up with a list of recommendations or actions that presumably would make theater more sanctuary-like, and his last tip has a personal bite to it, given our entwined history: "Critics and reviewers, because they have no place in a church, have no place in a theatrical sanctuary either, and should be driven like moneychangers from the temple."

As a Jesuit-educated liberal Protestant (who belongs to one of those "sects" that has allowed pop culture to infest our worship, as my church band has been known to cover U2, Prince, and the Melodians), and as someone who in fact doesn't check my critical faculties at the door of either the church or the theater, I have a different perspective. For one thing, the Jesuits introduced me to the concept of "sacramentality," which I've taken to mean, essentially, that if we believe the divine underpins and shapes our world and our lives, then it's not confined to any particular room, or any particular set of rituals or moods. I can celebrate, contemplate, even wrestle with God when I play the guitar, when I make a meal for my family, when watching a Broadway musical; each of these ostensible pleasures can also feel like a grind, as certainly as churchgoing can; the difference is all in the seeing and the believing.

Which is why, for me, theater as it exists now--in its imperfect, often nerve-jangled, Culture Industry-infested form, as well as in the small, quiet form George prefers--is already a spiritual practice, and in fact theatergoing (and occasional theatermaking) has been my main spiritual practice as much as it's been a vocation. So I was particularly happy to be asked to write on the subject for the Catholic magazine America, by Fr. Jim Martin, a Jesuit who happens to be a member of LAByrinth as well as frequent Colbert guest. My nut graf:
Theater’s spirituality is contained in its very essence, and I understand that essence in a deeply Christian way. In simple terms, theater is an arena where narrative is incarnated. When a story is made flesh before us on stage, by actual people with whom we share breathing space, it is no longer just information, mere plot points. It is metaphor with the sweat and spit of life in it, and that makes all the difference.
I dare say there's room for us all in the tent, or, to use Tom Waits' (literally) moving metaphor, down there by the train.


George Hunka said...

No personal offense meant in that comment regarding critics and reviewers, of course, Rob! And I certainly can't expect that one can turn on and off the critical faculty at will -- it's always on. I had in mind the place and role that reviewing has in the general economic system of theatre as a whole, a system that in this culture has turned some reviewers themselves into celebrities, sometimes considering themselves and their opinions more significant and less open to debate than the work they review. These reviewers seem quite happy with that.

As an atheist I have a rather different approach to the theatre and the world than your own, of course. And you're quite right, I wouldn't deny that there's room for us all in the tent, and I hope I was clear in that I don't want to impose my own aesthetics on any theatre maker other than myself.

I enjoyed reading your piece in America.

Rob Weinert-Kendt said...

Point taken, George. And I have to say, though our aesthetics diverge, I appreciate you laying yours out as starkly as you do. My tastes are so small-c catholic that I sometimes feel I can't even rely on them from day to day, let alone expect other people to trust them, let alone to construct a worldview or a manifesto out of them. So the chance to write about what I actually do believe about this form I spend so much time seeing and thinking about was a real gift; one of those I-didn't-know-what-I-thought-until-I-wrote-it sort of things.

George Hunka said...

It was well-said, Rob! I'm glad you had the opportunity as well.

Cole Matson said...

Mr. Weinert-Kendt,

Just sent you an e-mail. I'm an upcoming PhD student in Theology, Imagination & the Arts (focusing on theatre). I'll be doing a research tour on my proposed dissertation topic of liturgy & theatre this summer, and will be in NYC around Aug. 16 to talk with Fr. Jim Martin. I'd love to talk with you as well, and buy you lunch/coffee.

Cole Matson
(ccematson AT gmail)