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When the world feels so profoundly uncertain, why do theatre? | Richard Nelson

The director Peter Brook was once asked, “What is the future of theatre?” Without a moment’s hesitation, he replied: “Tell me, what is the future of food?” In the middle of huge social upheaval, civil unrest, deep-seated injustice and a devastating worldwide pandemic that has caused economic chaos and widespread personal tragedy, why put on a play? When the world feels so profoundly uncertain, why do theatre?

Let’s say one even finds the time, resources and outlets to do some sort of play; when there are no theatres open or live audiences, what sort of play do these times require, if any? Does theatre have a role in a world in flux that is in so much pain, is protesting and is facing profound uncertainty? Or does it have a responsibility? Maybe even an opportunity?

What Do We Need To Talk About? by Richard Nelson, featuring (clockwise from top left): Jay O Sanders and Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins and Stephen Kunken.

Nelson’s play What Do We Need to Talk About? was performed via Zoom in April, and featured (clockwise from top left) Jay O Sanders and Maryann Plunkett, Sally Murphy, Laila Robins and Stephen Kunken

There are of course different ways to answer these questions. There are many examples of theatre being a rich and entertaining expression of protest and ideologies, with theatre-makers putting to work their full range of theatrical tools for a specific cause. At other times, theatre has been a necessary escape from a troubled world; a momentary respite from conflicts raging outside its walls.

It can also be something else entirely. There is a theatre that chooses not to be a participant on the battlefields but rather something running parallel to them. This theatre does not attempt to portray the arguments being waged, nor does it allow itself to become a platform for them, but rather portrays characters who are simply trying to understand the world they are in, our world – as they ask themselves and each other: who they are, where they belong and do they matter? While all the time they try and live their lives, that are perhaps more complex than any of the arguments circling around them. A theatre that is about trying to understand as opposed to one with answers. A theatre made up of questions.

Whenever I find myself lost, I turn to Anton Chekhov. Here’s what I found in a letter he wrote to a friend: “I am not a liberal, nor a conservative, nor a gradualist, nor a monk, nor an indifferentist. I wanted to be a free artist and that’s all … I hate lies and violence in all their forms … Hypocrisy, dim-wittedness and tyranny reign not only in merchants’ homes and police stations … I look upon brands and labels as prejudice. My holy of holies is the human body, health, intelligence, talent, inspiration, love, and the most absolute freedom, freedom from violence and lies, however the two manifest themselves.”

‘I wanted to be a free artist and that’s all’ … Anton Chekhov.

‘I wanted to be a free artist and that’s all’ … Anton Chekhov. Photograph: Heritage Images/Getty Images

The motto of La Comédie-Française in Paris is: “Simul et singulis.” To be together and to be alone. In part this sums up the essence or at least the ambition of my kind of theatre: to bring together strangers, sit them in the dark and have them grow together into a group; that is, to come together while being alone. When together, they find themselves with other human beings who also have families and problems that are universal, truths that are multicultural. There in the dark watching theatre together, perhaps they will come to feel, if only briefly, that they are not alone.

This is a good reason to put on a play in very difficult times: to share that in our confusion, our questioning and our self-doubts, we are not alone.

A programme note to a play I wrote during the tumultuous 2016 US election seems relevant today: “In troubled and troubling times, theatre has not only an opportunity but the responsibility to portray the confusion and articulate the ambiguities, doubts and fears of its time. The goal then being not to argue a side or a point, but to attempt to portray people and worlds as they are, not as we wish them to be. Theatre, to my mind, is not an argument, but an effort to create and portray human complexity, which we then share with a living audience, human being to human being.”

And So We Come Forth: The Apple Family: A Dinner on Zoom, written and directed by Richard Nelson, will be streamed on 1 July and available for eight weeks.

Read the original article at The Guardian

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