A Postmodern Manifesto

WARNING: Contents May Have Shifted During Flight (Copyright ©2004 Rachel Kinsman Steck)

I am a queer feminist theater artist, and I am a lighting designer.  While I locate myself in and out of my art, I am, at the same time, betraying my art and myself.  I often find myself somewhere between the modernism of my upbringing and the postmodernism of my politics.  I therefore find myself defining theater as a historical tradition with the necessities of spectator(s), performer(s); a live event with account(s) and intention(s).  Theatre creates a community of occasion; which is to say that theatre engages its community and therefore I believe theatre creates more than just art.

By defining theater as a historical tradition I mean theater is a cultural currency: an economic system of taboos trading on the resistance and capitulation of truths.  Simply put, theater sustains and/or stretches cultural taboos that then define our truths.  Taboos are society’s way of patrolling our beliefs and theater has the ability to (re)consider these beliefs.  The act of performance is itself an act of considering; it says, ‘I believe this.’  Theater is, therefore, a political act.  All theater is a political act.

How, one might ask can I say that all theater is a political act?  Whether a piece is challenging or upholding the status quo it is still political.  Whether it celebrates or condemns; it renders things visible or invisible; or the space in between, it is always political.  It is political because it is a historicizing of society.  Theater takes moments, often everyday moments and recreates them on stage.  Bertolt Brecht said, “The theater concentrates entirely on whatever in this perfectly everyday event is remarkable, particular and demanding inquiry.”  The repetition of an everyday eventis, as Judith Butler writes,  “…rather, as a copy is to a copy.  The parodic repetition of ‘the original’… reveals the original to be nothing other than a parody of the idea of the natural and the original…”  Not only is theater artificial, but also by its function, it proves the cultural constructs of society itself.

But you might ask, what about the magical and mystical?  What about faith?  Are there still universals in the 21st century?  Should they be on stage?  My upbringing as an Anglican “p.k.” or priest kid, often contradicts my postmodern politics.  While the postmodern sense of self is often complicated and ever-shifting, I believe in a spirit that is somehow connected to my self.  I believe in the universality of things like death and love.  A universal, “– in which universal means ‘of the universe’ and not ‘of some garbage can reality’ where the rest of us get thrown away and The Man or Miss Thing stand alone for us all.” (Andrea Hairston, Upstaging Big Daddy)  I believe in the spells, bells, and magic smells and that they have a place in the theater.  But I cannot assume that my beliefs transcend to all spectators.  Anne Bogart says, “The enemy of art is assumption… the assumption that what you ‘mean’ will mean the same thing to those who receive it.  The instant you make an assumption about who the audience is or what the moment is, that moment will be asleep.”

I don’t want to be apart of a theater that is asleep.  Instead, I want to be apart of a theater that is vivacious, pulsing with anticipation.  I want to be apart of a theater that is proactive in its communities; that pushes and stretches taboos; that, as Bogart says, lights a fire from within.  I want to be apart of a theater that people say is shameless.  Shameless because it speaks its own language; the language of the body: the historical body, the cultural body – an engendered body.  The language that’s vocabulary is symbols: signs through gesture, words – visual and aural images/texts.  I want to be a part of a theater that’s language is written on the body.  Minnie Bruce Pratt says, “…we can not move theory into action unless we can find it in eccentric and wandering ways of our daily life…. to give theory flesh and breath.”

I design through chiaroscuro: a painting technique that uses high contrast between light and shadow to create the look of three dimensionality.  In painting, it is the tension between the shadow and highlight that create the dimension, that tricks the eye into seeing something there that is not.  Bogart writes, “… without resistance there is no fire.”  My work as a designer is in the tensions between flaccid entertainment and evocative entertainment, between the emotional and the intellectual, between the attractive and the grotesque, between the murky and the pristine…  And it is through these juxtapositions that I expect to show the space in between; to show what has been left out or silenced; to show what is queer.

I come to design as a collaborator, but I struggle with the use of this term.  I am not interested in silencing the voices of the artistic and production staff.  I cannot assume I know where the project will ultimately go.  I have chosen the direction to take: I have an aesthetic I hope to maintain and a question I hope to search for clues.  But the exact paths taken to find those clues must be decided by the entire company throughout the course of our journey. 

The journey must also involve our communities. I believe theatre builds activated communities. I believe theatre needs to be a civic center for 21st Century Citizens - a modern Agora. And therefore, our theatre must shift from its dichotomous tension of building or art to something more fluid, more available to the communities of which it is born.

The theater I love – no – the theater I need challenges assumptions about accessibility, whiteness, heterosexuality, privilege, labor, gender and race.  The theater I love strips away the frivolous while simultaneously maintaining the poetical.  It is historical: it has a memory of what has come before.  It is elemental.  It is entertaining.  It is not stable.  It is not fluffy, cute, or cuddly.  It is not safe.  Holly Hughes writes, “I forget that instability does not ensure safety.  We’re never safe, we’re just…  You tell me.”  The theater I love has, as Robert Wilson states, a scratched beauty.  The theater I love can never show us the whole truth.  Instead, the theater I love should leave us with what Peter Brook writes is a wondering ‘o’.