Updated: Jun 21, 2020
Why theatre practitioners might be better off thinking of themselves as a despised species
Theatre practitioners don't normally think of themselves as a despised species. But it might just be more useful if they did.
This article was first posted in MUSE Magazine in Canberra in November 1995 when I first coined the phrase "Cockroach Theatre". Since then, the term has been used in a number of contexts. Vegas Theatre Company in Las Vegas began as Cockroach Theatre Company in 2003.
If we think of the commotion caused by a cockroach casually appearing on a dinner plate during an exclusive dinner party or at a particularly refined and expensive restaurant we can see that its effect is in no way diminished by the creature being despised. The cockroach has a penchant for surviving and drawing attention to itself. It appears between the cracks paying little attention to the concerns of the dinner guests and just IS. The cockroach at the dinner table soon reduces the illusion of a disinfected universe to a more basic proposition. It draws attention to the cracks in the guests' universe and the brittle veneer over daily experience. And in a world where some would suggest art should follow market research, the cockroach might just provide an alternative positive model for theatre ... all be it: a cockroach theatre.
Key features of cockroach theatre might include: smallness, flexibility, multi-skilled across media, efficiency, burnt bridges, clarity of purpose, ideas driven, creative use of resources, playfulness, adventurous, risk taking, independence, compelling performance, total commitment to the art, tenacity, abrasive yet symbiotic with its audience ... etc. We see these features in bands and comedy acts: and we might see it more often in theatre of the future. We might also have observed these characteristics in theatre groups which later mutated into dinosaurs and disappeared.
The dinosaur theatre features specialisation of labour and is very comfortable with the guests at the official dinner table. Dinosaur theatre revels in role demarcation with each role jealously guarded. It is very proficient at lobbying where much of its creative energy is channelled. It is expensive. And demands high levels of Government intervention and support. Practitioners lament the growing crises in theatre and seek to turn back time to previous workable models of theatre organization and practice. It paradoxically looks to amateur theatre with a kind of envy as if to say, give us more funding and we could do that too ...
Cockroach theatre takes a different view. Problems become opportunities. Change is a tool: and asset. The essential differences between theatre and other media are exploited. Like the band or comedy act which writes and performs its own material, cockroach theatre does likewise: the creative focus for the work being the heart of everything that is done. Cockroach theatre operates as a team to produce original work that grows from within the observations, talents, desires, and contradictions of the individual members. Work is tested with audiences. No matter how complex, cockroach theatre uses the creative tension between writing material and performance in front of audiences to grow and develop its uniqueness. Rather than relying on market research, the cockroach theatre is constantly testing the ground with its own work feeding off success and learning from its failures. Like the busker, it seeks avenues to exploit its need to BE what it IS ...
As theatre becomes polarized into dinosaur and cockroach, the dinosaur has become so dependent on the government and big business benefactors for its funding: so much power of life or death has been placed in the hands of bureaucracies, academia, corporations and the many interests being served by government and community infra-structure ... no wonder that so much skill and attention has been placed on the whole mechanisms of lobbying and public relations. While the cockroach will accept government funding, it is not dependent on it ... the government may be accepted as one of its many purchasers or investors.
Theatre practitioners in the Australia might well use cockroach theatre strategies in place of the rationalist / lobbying and committee modes so observable and currently employed with disastrous results. I doubt that any amount of policy making, research or review of practices etc. is going to make any difference to the well being of theatre unless theatre BECOMES, and like the cockroach, simply IS. What we are seeing now is an art form being bled by a thousand pin pricks. And the more it is being discussed, written about (like me pontificating in this article), and subjected to rationalist (economic or otherwise) debate devoid of reference to issues contained within the art form, then the more it will be sapped and leeched of its essential life force; the more practitioners will be placating each other: seeking reasons for obvious failures while not wanting to be left behind ... left off the invitation list.
Joe Woodward a version of this article was first published in MUSE magazine Nov 1995
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