Articulating the Cosmopolitan in the Theatre

This post is a continuation of my 12 August post on my seduction to cosmopolitanism, which may be viewed here.

My attraction to cosmopolitanism vis-à-vis the theatre experience is based on a vision of community that may be perceived in the relationship among audience members and the relationship between the audience and the performance.

The theatre is a community constructed among strangers. 

The theatre is about embodying representations and presentations. In doing so, theatre makers focus their gaze on an imagined self, an imagined other and an imagined world. Theatre is a space where the allure to difference or the fascination to the other commonly takes place. The imagined characters onstage are created because of an allure to the other (an imagined other).

A performance of Merideth Monk’s A Celebration Service staged at the Quezon Hall Foyer on the occasion of the National Arts Month 2015 at the University of the Philippines Diliman (Photo: UP Diliman Information Office)

Audience members go to the theatre for several reasons: to be entertained, to support an actor-friend or an actor-family member, because the performance benefits a certain cause, among other reasons. But audience members in the theatre experience the stranger – both the fictional characters onstage and fellow audience members. Performers also experience the stranger – their audiences. In these experiences of the stranger, there is an involvement of a gaze.

Gazing at something alluring is orientalist or occidentalist, but, on the other hand, it is activated due to familiarity. Therefore, it is not necessarily hostile. When theatre makers create fictional characters, the creation originates from something familiar – memory perhaps.

Noneteless, as soon as these familiar entities are performatively repeated in rehearsals and eventually in the actual performance, the familiar becomes unfamiliar. 

 Theatre brings the gaze of audiences on both the familiar and the unfamiliar. Probably, there is an unwritten or unspoken contract between the audience and the performance in which the performance is expected to bring a vicarious experience to the audience and the audience is expected to engage with the vicariousness of the experience presented by the performance. To experience something vicariously is to experience something familiar but not entirely familiar; it is but a glimpse of familiarity. Therefore, to experience vicariously is also about experiencing something ambiguous. In this contract, the performance is also expected to defamiliarize the familiar while the audience is expected to familiarize the unfamiliar. Hence, the relationship between the performance and the audience involves ambiguity and familiarity. These tensions produce a creative potential towards the union of cosmopolitanism and the theatre. Cosmopolitanism is about the familiar – common humanity, care, responsibility, justice, openness among other concepts. And yet, these same concepts are ambiguous. 

The audience members as they enter the auditorium (National Theatre in London) before the performance of War Horse (Photo: SAPT)

 

Of all the art forms, theatre arguably projects a community: a community of performers plus audience members. Audience members are sitting side by side with strangers. Performers are performing before strangers. Each member comes from a particular historical perspective and possesses a particular gaze. Even the characters that performers portray were crafted from particular historical, socio-cultural and ideological positions. Audience members are also gazing at some fictional others who are embodied onstage. At a glance, the community constructed in theatre seems to project the cosmopolitan ideal, particularly the conception of living side by side with strangers – with others – a visceral cosmopolitan encounter as Mica Nava proposes. There is something worth investigating a life “lived with difference” or “lived with strangers:” Is such a life equivalent to that life which is lived in apathy? Looking at the relationship among the community members constructed in the domain of the theatre, there seems to be a suggestion of a multicultural account where tolerance and apathy toward others or strangers are implicated. When I go to the theatre, for example, I am aware that I am with strangers – with others whom I do not really care to know. Moreover, the performers do not really care who their audiences are. 

Apathy notwithstanding, the theatre allows this sense of apathy to escape. Unlike social theories in which prescriptions on cosmopolitanism appear to be fleetingly abstract, in the theatre the individual is placed in the context of both the familiar and the unfamiliar, making him more aware of his position with difference in a visceral way. Since theatre involves representation and presentation of imagined others, audience members and performers alike are implicated in some questions about ethics. 

 In Theatre and Ethics, Nicholas Ridout explains that the theatre is about doing, acting, performing and perhaps even becoming. Ethics is generally also about doing, acting, performing and even becoming. Fundamentally, some ethical questions like “How do I act?” “How do I engage with others?” “What is the right thing to do?” are often implicated in the theatre. When an audience member is asked if the show is any good, some ethical considerations are implied in both the questioning and the  answering. And then there is the performance itself where characters – imagined or fictional, both the familiar and the unfamiliar figures – are performing before the audience members.  During the performance, the audience members identify themselves with the characters: “That character is so bad, I know someone like that” or “I want to be like that character.” 

 And then, the performance often revolves around some ethical dilemma. As stated, the performance deals with actions embodied and enacted by fictional characters. In this regard, audience members are seemingly prepared to confront some ethical dilemma through the actions of these fictional characters. In this way, the constructed community comprised of audience members begins to engage with the performance. The individual is presented with embodied images involving judgment with his or her gaze on the fictional characters onstage. This judgment, based on the engagement, erases the apathetic tendency of the audience towards his/her relationship with others. As theatre theoriest Dan Rebellato argues in Theatre and Globalization, audience members are faced with ethical dilemma through their identifications with the characters. The ethical lies in the vicariousness of the experience, which is also a call of the “imagination” to put oneself in the other’s (imagined or fictional other) shoes as moral philosopher Hanah Arendt beautifully puts it in another context. Performers embody this imaginative instance of empathy, which is transferred to the audience members during a performance.

 My conception of ethics is based on an encounter that gives importance to the conception and materiality of the other. This encounter is governed by a disposition of responsibility and care because the other is seen as an extension of the private (the self): one cannot be at home with other, if he/she is not at home with himself/herself. In this regard, it can be inferred that the realm of ethics in the theatre is based on a relational ontology, which sees human beings as existing in complex groups and webs of relationships, thick with responsibilities. Doing the right action has for a long time been a discussion of ethics motivated by some rational undertaking: if the action cannot be explained rationally (or scientifically), then the action is not ethical. But, the theatre teaches us that the cornerstone of ethics is caring because the individual’s existence is often viewed to be situated in regard to his or her relation with other individuals.  

This connection of theatre to community and ethics sets the agenda of my assertions regarding how cosmopolitanism is related to theatre. Grounded within the assumption that theatre is a space where belonging to a community (including questions of ethics) is strongly manifested, Perhaps, the relationship of theatre and cosmopolitanism is ontological. More so, if concepts of multiculturalism, internationalism, cross-cultural collaborations are found to be at the core of cosmopolitan agenda in the study of theatre, then other theatre practices are assumed to possess no potency for cosmopolitan engagement.

For more information about my cosmopolitan engagement with the theatre, please check out my book: Cosmopolitanism, Theatre and the Philippines: Performing Community in a World of Strangers (The University of the Philippines Press, 2018) available at the UP Press Bookstore, Upper Shelf at Ayala-U.P. Town Center, and other online bookstores.

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