Writing for a Theoretical Stage
EDITED BY DANIEL SACK
2018 EXCELLENCE IN EDITING AWARD
from the Association for Theatre in Higher Education
Imagined Theatres: Writing for a Theoretical Stage gathers together a collection of theoretical plays written by close to one hundred of the leading scholars and artists of the contemporary stage in North America and the UK. These fragments, prose poems, microfictions, and microdramas—each no longer than a page—describe imaginary performance events that put theory itself onstage to imagine what is possible and impossible in the theatre. Each scenario is mirrored by a brief accompanying gloss—also a page in length—asking what these hypotheticals might open for our thinking about the theatre and the non-theatrical. The book builds on a long history of philosophers, artists, writers, and dramatists employing the theatre as a metaphorical way of imagining our world differently, but it stakes a unique claim on the significance of the theatre in contemporary thought. By turns beautiful and terrifying, these short pieces show the hopes and fears that this artform alone might realize.
A website (imaginedtheatres.com) was launched in the fall of 2017, with an inaugural issue focused on South Africa. Additional issues will be published online to expand the reach of the project beyond its initial borders. The site will also feature a growing collection of unsolicited work, curated and reviewed by an editorial board.
from THE INTRODUCTION
These "imagined theatres" might seem illogical or fantastical; they might break the laws of physics and etiquette. Perhaps they could be staged in some ideal architecture where the finances, conventions, ethics, or other practicalities of actual production do not hold sway. Each is a thought experiment about the expectations of the theatre, a parable or paradox that touches upon its nature and elaborates on the many ways in which that nature might be conceived. Imagined Theatres gathers together what may initially seem impossible, in order that its readers might interrogate where that impossibility lies and what lies are obscured by calling it "impossible." (For is anything truly impossible in a theatre?)Many of the imagined theatres in the following pages provoke questions of performance's fundamental dimensions: time and space. Some stretch the duration of an event to last a lifetime or to outlive many generations, while others pass momentarily. Great accumulations fill the page with a density that exceeds the carrying capacity of the theatre's confines: cities, nations, whole ecosystems and vast complexities flicker into appearance. They literalize the long-lived philosophical conceit of the theatrum mundi, the world as stage, and make theatres of canyons and gardens. They open prosceniums that look out upon the edges of outer space to choreograph a dance between planets, a conflict between microscopic actors, or frame a people in migration as performances.Others ask us to reconsider who or what gets to perform on a stage. The theatre may be largely concerned with humans watching other humans in action—holding a mirror up to (human) nature, as Hamlet put it in his address to the actors about to perform his own imagined play. But in an age when non-human animals, objects, technologies, and the ecological surrounds at large are recognized as living actors, participating in events far more intricate than any Disney-like dream of anthropomorphic song and dance might portray, we require an expanded ethics and sociality born out of interspecies and interanimate relations. With its histories and para-histories of puppets, circus, and animal shows, the theatre might pose responsible ways of thinking and acting with the non-human. It shows how that mountain is doing something, how the ocean is delivering us a message.Historically and culturally defined conventions limit the theatre in ways as profound as any seeming natural order. In confronting these conventions directly, word for word, imagined theatres show us what should be possible today, what thinkers like Jill Dolan and José Muñoz have framed as the utopic aspect of performance. Such proposals demand that we reconsider theatre's publics, that we create spaces welcoming those normally without the means and time to access its offerings, or whose makers do not require approval from the gatekeepers of cultural acceptability or normativity. They play with the concrete materiality of labor conditions, imagining theatres that recompense performers fairly, or give voice to underrepresented participants. They turn our attention to sites where people are made socially and politically invisible—prisons, hospitals, schools—or force us to look hard at the undersides of institutions devoted to display—theatres, museums, cinemas. Since the theatre is contiguous to the everyday, as these pieces challenge art they also challenge quotidian life (knowing that these two dimensions can never be separated). To call these "imaginary" is to recognize the current prejudices of artmaking in the Anglophone world, but it is also to recognize that theatre is anything but fixed and stable; it changes in different contexts and times. There have been many theatres, and there will be many more.Some of these texts will not look like theatrical texts at first glance. Remember how Marcel Duchamp signed a name to a urinal and thereby turned that overlooked mundane receptacle into a voluptuous porcelain sculpture. He placed this "readymade" object into the frame of a museum, called it "art," and thus the definition of art had to alter to accommodate the interloper. So, too, walk across a stage and you will become an actor, place a chair on its boards and it will begin to perform something. With Imagined Theatres, you might think of the page itself as a stage or performance space where anything that enters its field becomes a player. This expansion of the term "theatre" applies to the form of the writing as much as its content. Yes, there are scripts in here with characters and speeches, italicized stage directions like the ones that opened this very introduction. Yet other texts appear as sets of instructions, stories in prose, or poems in verse. Some are closer to what goes by the name of "philosophy," or "history," or "confession." What happens to these texts when they are called "theatres"? What is gained or presumed by such a designation? What is lost?Imagining the limit cases of a theatrical event, one might come closer to understanding what theatre in its broadest conception can be and do. The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said of his own writing, "I am not interested in constructing a building, as much as in having a perspicacious view of the foundations of possible buildings." For Wittgenstein, this meant a reflection on the nature of language itself, communication as a game that we play with others, almost always according to unspoken rules. He described his writing as a ladder of language that might be used to climb outside the building of language and then regard its foundations. So, too, the hypotheticals of Imagined Theatres are intended to see and put pressure on the actual makeup of the medium.
imagined theatres in print
- An interview about the project. Also features six imagined theatres and six glosses selected from the book. Authors include Arjomand, Chow, Ethcells, Hampton, Harvey, Herrera, MacDonald, Moraga, O'Donnell, and Oswald. Read online.
"A Constellation of Imagined Theatres: Technology and Performance"
- Ten imagined theatres and ten glosses selected from the book. Authors include Alvarez, Arjomand, Chambers-Letson, Chaudhuri, Chow, Dorsen, Grobe, Hampton, Kelleher, Kim, Manson, Nelson, Phelan, Rains, La Rocco, Wooden, and Worthen. A short original introduction and editorial comment frame the pieces that follow. Read online.
- A series of imagined theatres interspersed with theoretical reflections on the form. Two or three pages from this text are reproduced in the book; the rest is original. Read online.
- A single imagined theatre published in a poetry journal. The piece is published elsewhere as The Horizon (in "Some Imagined Theatres: selections for a theoretical stage") and as Preface (in the book).
"Like many of its individual plays and glosses, the volume as a whole is an exercise in refusing a single authoritative reading in favor of multiple fortuitous, complementary ones: a whole multiverse shimmering at the periphery of your reading. Indeed, this is a book that one could dip into in meditative luxury for years. The microdramas are endlessly excerptable, and ripe for use in a variety of pedagogical and performance contexts. [...] I found myself dog-earing page after page for inclusion on syllabi."
-Ariel Watson in Text & Presentation.
"Imagined Theatres legitimizes such mythical figments of the imagination as not merely frivolous, unproductive brainstorming hidden in a personal device or notebook, but rather as ideas meant to be disseminated as potential creative fuel to provoke a theatre that never stops trying to revolutionize."
-Melanie Bennett in PAJ: A Journal of Art and Performance.
"Imagined Theatres contains profound visions of the theatres we are yet to make and see. [...] It is a project guaranteed to infect readers with the fever of possibility theatre offers us."
-Joseph Dunne in Drama Research: the International Journal of Drama in Education.
“Reading Imagined Theatres is like attending a well-organized theatre festival. […] In an era best described as a time of inertia, Sack’s project is one of hope and possibility.”
-Karie Miller in Texas Theatre Journal.
“The strength of Sack’s edited book lies not just in its vertiginous mix of subjects and the caliber of its contributors, but also in the intellectual audacity with which it challenges its reader to ask, ‘is anything truly impossible in a theatre?’ […] Just as with the “ real” theatre, Imagined Theatres engineers something miraculous: it permits ideas to escape the confines of the scripted page so that they may assume a life of their own within the virtual space of an imaginary stage.
-Tony Fisher in Theatre Survey.