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TBA Online: News & Features: January 2018

Executive Director's Note: A New Year for Old Tech

Wednesday, January 3, 2018   (0 Comments)
Posted by: TBA Staff
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by Brad Erickson

It’s that time of the year when newspaper columnists and media pundits love to look back and assess the twelve months just passed or make assured predictions for the year to come. I’ve just reread my own column from last New Year’s week and find it now to be pretty scary - and scared. For many Bay Area progressives, January 2017 seemed like a precipice just twenty days wide. There were not quite three weeks before the new regime in Washington took charge. One imagined a slow-motion disaster scene that would see us all, collectively, falling off the edge. The question of that time was how were we to make theatre in this changed and darkening world? How were we to make art as we plummeted down?

This January, we are indeed in a changed world, but one altered in ways few, if any, predicted. Over the past year, theatre has been made even as we lifted our “ghostlights” and donned pink pussy hats and fought to save the NEA and universal access to health care, even as we heard or joined the cries of “me too” and witnessed or participated in protests over racism and rape culture on our stages. In this year, art has been created precisely because we have been challenged to articulate and defend our values.

Two articles from the 2018 changing of the year fill me with resolve and a sense of the worthiness of what we as theatremakers do. Both, interestingly, are by playwrights, one published last month in the San Francisco Chronicle ("The oldest tech, theater, might be an antidote to the newest") by the Bay Area’s own Lauren Gunderson (2017’s most produced playwright in America according to American Theatre), the other by the Pulitzer Prize-winning dramatist Ayad Akhtar ("An Antidote to Digital
Dehumanization? Live Theater"
), posted a few days ago in the
New York Times. Both writers make a case for the power of live theatre, an ancient medium, in this digital era.

Living in the epicenter of the technological universe, surrounded by the genius, the giants and the junk of social media, the words of these two playwrights speak powerfully to us as makers and witnesses of theatre. Gunderson and Akhtar remind us that the very qualities that make theatre so clunky in our streamlined age (theatre takes place one performance at a time, at a specific hour at a specific location, it is not replicable, it is not scalable, it cannot be paused or muted or played back, it is always live and in person and never on a screen) also contribute to this art form’s unique ability to convey meaning and to forge a community, or “congregation” as Gunderson calls it. It even has the effect of synchronizing the heart beats of audience members. (A documented phenomena Akhtar describes in his article.)

As we enter this new year, let’s remember the power of this ancient technology to speak truths both timely and eternal, to grab our minds and hearts, to bring us literally together to engage with other human beings, beside us and up on stage, and to send us out into this altered world a little better, a little readier, than when we walked through the stage or lobby door.