ON METATHEATRICS

JOHN CLANCY
©2002
There is a fashionable school of American theatre that can be called Metatheatrics. It is
the youngest child of the unhappy marriage of grad school theory and real world naiveté
and it is at best an interesting diversion and at worst a malicious waste of everyone’s
time.
Its most characteristic feature is the confusion or removal of the traditionally understood
audience/player relationship, the “mimetic threshold” in the words of Jackson Lears.
Metatheatrics works most effectively outside of a theater and is most successful when it
best disguises the occurrence of a theatrical event. The closest real world transactions
that most resemble a metatheatrical occurrence are con games and hoaxes. Like con
games and hoaxes, the ignorance of the individual audience member is an essential
element in Metatheater. Largescale
and ambitious metatheater can operate along the
lines of a pyramid scheme or an Amway convention, with initially unwitting audience
members being let in on the operation and in turn recruiting more audience.
I had the singular misfortune of being surrounded and embroiled in a metatheatrical event
in the spring of 1997 here in New York City. An internet theatre chatroom was the initial
and central “site” of the event, but in true metatheatrical fashion the stage shifted to
wherever the players or their characters appeared. I unknowingly played out entire
scenes in the lobbies of theaters and even in my own home. This event turned out ugly,
by design or accident I’ll never know, and charges of harassment were filed and angry
and threatening letters were exchanged and published. The result of this “play” or
“narrative” or “event” was a heightened distrust and dispiritedness within the already
guarded and beaten down New York alternative theatre ranks. Whether this was the
intent of the Metatheatrical producers of the event or even if there was an intended result,
again, I’ll never know, that uncertainty being part and parcel of the event. I mention this
to acknowledge that I have a personal dislike and animosity towards Metatheater and it’s
practitioners. But beyond the personal, I believe there are formal and philosophical
reasons to disavow Metatheatrics.
Theater, as I understand and practice it, is in its highest achievements the most
democratic art. It depends on live people gathered together in one place to witness other
people. There is a rough and readymade
agreement implicit in any theatrical event:
we’ll sit here for a while while you jump around in front of or around us. When one
thinks of historically “great” theater, the Greeks, Shakespeare’s Globe, one imagines the
mingling of the classes, the groundlings and the royalty seeing the premier of Richard the
Third together. Metatheater, on the contrary, depends entirely on a strict elitism, with
those in the know enjoying and appreciating the event while those that take the event
“seriously”, those from whom the context of the event has been hidden, are kept out of
and even unaware of the existence of the “inner circle”. This is not a financial or cultural
elitism at play, which traditional theater can and has fallen prey to, but an informational
elitism, appropriate to our Information Age. Where knowledge is power, those in the
know rule. In traditional theater the power of knowledge is shared with the audience,
everyone knows the rules and is playing the same game. Taken a step farther, one of the
central points of traditional theater is the attempt to speak truth to power. In a democratic
society, I place the power in the hands of the citizens and I believe that by speaking of
and showing people truthful situations, one theater event at a time, we fulfill the dictum.
Metatheater has passed beyond this dictum and aims rather to speak deceit to power and
powerlessness alike.
Another aspect of metatheater that distresses me is its emphasis on theory over craft.
American theater in general suffers from a historical degradation of the practice and
maintenance of craft. Our actors are not trained to move or speak; they are taken through
classes and entire programs that focus almost exclusively on their emotional and
psychological makeup.
This training prepares them well for film work but leaves them
helpless in front of an audience of over two hundred and literally crippled when
confronted with the Greeks, Shakespeare, Moliere or anything written before 1940.
Metatheater, of course, has no interest or concern with the craft of the theater, with
acting, writing, directing or design. It is primarily concerned with the theory of
performance, not the practice. I believe we need to focus as much on the theory of what
we do as on the practice of doing it, but any theory which takes us farther away and not
directly to the living and breathing center of what we do should be left, respectfully, in
the graduate school lecture hall.
The largest qualm I have about Metatheatrics is an ethical one, I suppose. Not precisely
ethical, but an essential disagreement with the practitioners of Metatheatrics over the
function or purpose or nature of art as it relates to everything else. There is a sense in
Metatheatrics and in many theories or understandings of art that the artists and the act of
art should exist in a state of natural opposition to society. This sense of art as a critical
and reflective force seems right and certainly the artist must maintain a distance from
society in order to express a reflection or critique of it. But this distance is only a formal
and provisional one, a distance that is created during the act of creation only. I disavow
the vague contemporary notion of the artist as some kind of intellectual outlaw and think
more in terms of the artists of a society forming a loyal opposition to the prevailing
majority’s views and attitudes. What gives the artist’s work strength and immediacy is
her understanding of her society and her involvement in it.
The clearest, albeit most overgeneralized
way of stating this disagreement is that the
Metatheatrics crowd, those that I know, anyway, think and speak of art in terms of crime,
where I try to think and speak of art in terms of work. Rather than imagining an ignorant
multitude that I will dupe in some way, I think of an essentially perceptive group of
strangers that it is my job to engage in dialogue. More than just work, I think of art as a
civic work, an essential public service that the artists provide for his society. I’m not
advocating a return to Social Realism or the W.P.A., I have no particular content or form
or style that I am championing, I’m speaking of an underlying attitude or understanding
that the artist has towards the nature of art and it’s relationship to the world. The fact is
we are engaged in the making of things and as theater artists, those things, be they plays,
stage designs or performances, are only truly complete when others see them. Our art
depends directly on and in a very real way exists only in the physical and actual
relationship with an audience. We should pay closer attention to the relationship and
speak honestly about our understanding of it.

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4 Comments

  1. John, it seems like you have experienced and fallen victim to some ill-advised/despicable “Metatheater”. Being the Founder of a company (The Neo-Futurists) which is often noted as being one of the bastions of metatheater in the country, I feel some need to contradict you.
    I always find it interesting when there is such a preponderance of truly thoughtless or misanthropic work done in one genre that it damns an entire genre of art itself – for instance witness the widespread hatred of mimes, performance art, or disco music. Yet there is good if not brilliant and inspiring work within these fields as well.
    Firstly I would argue with your nomenclature. I think of “Metatheater” as any performance that is self-aware of being theater, or, traditionally, theater about theater. Hopefully that’s not all that’s going on, but at its heart I think this is “metatheater”. Therefore I would include some of your references – the Greeks, Medieval pageant wagons, Shakespeare, Melodrama and even Beckett – in the pantheon of “Metatheater”. They all take into account and periodically remind the audience that they are watching an event within the framework of “theater”, intellectually distancing the audience somewhat (in a Brechtian way) before they continue on to bring them back into the heart of the production. Of course all metatheater all the time is at best amusing and at worst vapid.
    You seem to view metatheater as more of a hoodwinking experience where only the perpetrators are aware of the “theater” and inflict it on the unsuspecting public for their only manipulative and devious designs. But even given this more narrow definition of metatheater I would argue that there is some merit to the form and some brilliant examples that you yourself would find fulfilling.
    Certainly Augusto Boal’s Invisible Theater where he would prep his performers to go into a public setting and raise awareness of a social injustice and then leave before the public found out it was a “set up” has great merit and would fit into your definition. Boal would sometimes then take his sociological findings and turn them into public legislation in Brazil to fight oppression.
    There are also the more “prankish” examples. I personally am very fond of the Fluxus events where the unsuspecting public was included in various activities from a guided tour of the restrooms of Manhattan to a concert where a man kicked a guitar around the block. I think these endeavors expand the public’s understanding of the breadth and accessibility of art and that’s a good and humanitarian aim.
    I think even the more publicized stunts of Improv Everywhere are quite amusing and ultimately community building. Certainly the public reading by Anton Chekhov a few years ago in a Barnes and Noble did no harm and the pantsless subway riders only mock our societal norms. Occasionally when feelings are hurt and their construct is insensitive (as in their manufactured over-night fandom of that unknown band) do I feel they defeat their means, but generally I find these events amusing and empowering.
    In my own Site-Specific Neo-Futurism classes we occasionally drop money in a crowd or hold the door and thank people for coming to a mall or try to buy someone’s place in line. I feel there is no harm in this and, at best, it makes someone’s day more intriguing or unexpected. And from the perpetrator’s perspective we get some insight into human behavior from a sociological perspective.
    Personally I like to take an anthropological or sociological view of theater. Isn’t that really what we’re doing in theater anyway – seeing how a group of individuals respond to a certain stimulus in a public setting? I am in no way defending all metatheater, but, like disco, I think there are some humanitarian effects and provocative ideas to come out of it.

  2. Points well-made and well-taken, Greg.
    And today’s the birthday of Terry Southern, I think, and what is The Magic Christian but an account of some of the greatest metatheatrical performances ever imagined? All hail Guy Grand.

  3. Steve Stratmore |

    I can’t really understand what that guy greg is talking about, but it’s so cool that we can actually write on the clancy’s website now. imagine like the clancy’s website is a giant, grass tableux and I’m a big dog with a full bladder. It’s kind of like that.

  4. ronnie cohen |

    Hey John: I’d love to get back in touch with you (have an old old email address) about potentially producing my play, Witnessed by the World. It stars Tovah Feldshuh and has Karen Lynn Carpenter as Director. It’s 90 mins. thriller about Jack Ruby — the
    50th anniversary of the Assassination is this Nov. 22nd, and we have an Off-B Theatre from 11/4-12/15.
    If you have any interest, pls email me at ronniecohen66@gmail.com
    Your old pal,
    Ronnie