by Eric Coble
Emerging from the One Theatre World conference on plays for young audiences, this past May, life was pretty wondrous. And ringing in my head was a concept totally unrelated to any of what I’d just seen or experienced, except that it was perhaps at the very heart of the experience, and perhaps the heart of what theater, better than any other art form, can achieve. The concept comes from Jean Clottes, former head of scientific research at Chauvet Cave in southern France that contains cave paintings dating back 35,000 years:
People of the Paleolithic probably had two concepts which change [one’s] vision of the world. The concept of fluidity and the concept of permeability. Fluidity means that the categories that we have—man, woman, horse, tree, etc.—can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal, and the other way around, given certain circumstances. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of the spirits. A wall can talk to us, or a wall can accept us or refuse us. A shaman for example can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or can receive the visit, inside him or her, of supernatural spirits. If you put those two concepts together you realize how different life must have been for those people from the way we live now.
Exactly. Except not for all of us. Children are still remarkably, gloriously, frighteningly close to our Paleolithic ancestors. They have absolute faith and comfort in fluidity and permeability, in parents who can become animals and rocks that can speak to enlighten or deceive. The freedom of that worldview, the magic that this enables, makes writing for children’s theater both a joy and exquisite effort—one has to let go of rational plotting, of the need for explanation, while still honoring the rules of the universe being created. Which strikes me as being a valid way to live one’s life outside theater.
But here’s the thing. This universe is not just for kids. Over the three days of the festival, I witnessed adults, men and women from their twenties to their sixties, who totally bought that a Styrofoam ball and a gloved hand were a small man in a diving suit, one that they cared for, rooted for, and grieved with. They believed an obviously human hand moving through the air with a squeaking sound was a mouse that had seen enough injustice in the world and was finally taking action; that a plastic bag came to life and pursued its own agenda within our human realm. Inanimate became animate, fluidity was real. The edges of our known world became permeable. And, yes, we knew. We knew it was a puppeteer—there was no effort to hide the mechanics—we’re sophisticated and jaded and theater people for god’s sake. And yet we believed. We believed with our child/Paleolithic minds. Is there anywhere else besides theater where this can happen with such grace? Where the machinery can be in such plain sight and yet simultaneously break us free of our fundamental knowledge of the world? Paintings, music, dance, novels can punch us in the gut, remind us we’re human, open us to others’ experiences, but can they fundamentally revert our very perceptions to an earlier state? We’re in the same room at the same time with the creators, they are clearly as human as we are, and for minutes or hours at a time we are in the presence of something nonhuman, nonrational, yet viscerally real and true.
So what about plays for adults? Can their stories be just as filled with fluidity and permeability? I would argue that there is as much truth to those states as to any other, perhaps more so. Adults watch, transfixed, transported as leather and wood and wire shift form into a huge animal we weep for in Warhorse. And isn’t that sense of magic—knowing that we are witnessing transformation, craving it, the sense that something larger, more true is happening in the obvious falsehood—isn’t that so much more potent than having real horses on stage? It’s not just impressive, it’s fracking magic. The wildlife of the savannah in Lion King, the singing basement appliances of Caroline, or Change, the terrified blind gods in Equus, this is not just stagecraft—it’s matter transforming into other matter, or at least allowing us to believe again that that is possible. And our world gets bigger, more wondrous.
Even when physical objects are not transmogrifying, we can achieve stunning moments of permeability as something sweeping and unexplainable bleeds through into our world (or at least the world of the play). It’s not subtle, but when Tony Kushner has an angel descend through a ceiling to announce heaven’s plans…well, our Paleolithic ancestors (and children) would have grasped that more easily than understanding why Blanche Dubois loves paper lanterns. Lisa D’Amour’s Anna Bella Eema, Mickle Maher’s There Is A Happiness That Morning Is, my own early stabs at permeability in My Barking Dog—all of these stories take place here, now, but in a world where our narrow realities are enlarged and our understanding of life gets bigger. Brilliant plays like Good People and Clybourne Park speak ugly truths in graceful ways, but they are, by choice, creating a world that is the exact same size as life. We need those stories, but I posit that we need, perhaps even more, worlds that are unimaginably larger than the one we return to when we step out of the theater onto the sidewalk.
None of this is new, to be sure; theater likely was birthed from acting out the transformations (and perhaps thus gaining some control over them) believed to be happening in the world around our ancestors. Perhaps ancient theatrical techniques and modern technology may yet show us a way to resuscitate our art in the face of all encompassing digital entertainment by offering audiences something we can’t get anywhere else, something that forces us to do the work, to create (or allow) the magic, even as adults, in the face of what we think we know about our world. It’s one thing to willingly believe that Willy Loman is a real person in a real kitchen, but so many other art forms can trick us into that. Novelists can utterly suck us into their worlds, fantastic or not, but they don’t have to contend with our rational brains telling us we’re sitting in a room with strangers consciously watching other strangers tell a story and simultaneously that a live actor is becoming an automobile or a man has been impregnated by a coyote. By directly engaging this battle between our certainty of the real and our hunger for the might-be-real at such an unconscious yet obvious level, theater supersedes other art forms and is able let the bigger world of transformation bleed through.
One more thought from Mssr. Clottes:
Humans have been described in many ways, right? And for a while it was Homo Sapiens and it’s still called Home Sapiens, “the man who knows.” I don’t think it’s a good definition at all. We don’t know. We don’t know much. I would think Homo Spiritulalis.
The theater has given us the unique tools to take us back to our most primitive basic reality, whether one wants to call that a child’s mind or the mind, now forgotten, that launched our species on our current course. We know what existing in the world created by logic and physics feels like. What about living in a world of magic and vastness and wonder again?
What a gift. What a challenge. What art.
Eric Coble is a playwright born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado. His plays include The Velocity of Autumn, Bright Ideas,The Dead Guy, Natural Selection, For Better, and The Giver and have been produced Off-Broadway, throughout the U.S., and on several continents. This post appeared on HowlRound.