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  • Writer's pictureJOE WOODWARD

Theatre vs Cultural Entrapment

Photo by Matt Kochar

To discuss theatre and drama without any referencing of the epistemological dimensions that garner and shape artistic production is to deny students of the very grounding on which art has any plausible validity within education and life itself.

I'm going to make a broad statement here. Of course the validity of it is challengeable. But it provides the basis for virtually all my work in theatre.

Stirring the Cultural Psyche

Theatre is about stirring up the psychic energies within culture and society to reveal often hidden agendas, motivations, how people relate to each other and the political dimensions of all action. It is about revealing or examining possible ways through which young people, adults and societies can navigate their way through a maze of deception, narcissism and a general clattering of all our realities. You will appreciate this view is significantly different from that which proposes theatre as affirmation of particular world views, identities and activisms of all kinds. However, I certainly don't want to suggest a theatre as some kind of passive or socio/political neutrality! The reverse is the case. Theatre is a dynamic ingredient in the recasting of values and challenging of cultural beliefs. It goes beyond "art for art-sake".

Release from Cultural Entrapment

While culture is generally seen as something to be affirmed and studied it is also a straitjacket through which one is held captive to the circumstance of one's own birth. Historically it has led to more bloodshed, oppression and destruction than any other single concept. This is the irony and paradox of existence; without culture we are left stranded in a void. This leads to ennui and alienation of the soul and oppression of the individual spirit. But it is also a tunnel through which vision is channelled to only one perspective, blocking out other dimensions and possible realities. While it frames identity, it also constricts imagination and the spirit of natural curiosity.

Theatre is a tool to release the personal and political psyche from cultural entrapment.

Theatre and the Dream

If our theatre is vibrant, we wont be sleeping

Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream", with its awkward and disunified structure, best illustrates the absurdity of conformity within cultural barriers while also injecting disruptors into the easy adherence to social norms. In the Dream, much of what we hold sacred is but an illusion and only through reflecting on the dream world may we come to realize our potential and possible outcome. However, as we see in the Dream, the participants never see the forces that are shaping their actions, thoughts and feelings. It is only when we view the situations from a distance can we see the absurdity of the offence. So:

Image by Edwin Landseer

"If we shadows have offended,

Think but this, and all is mended,

That you have but slumber'd here

While these visions did appear.

And this weak and idle theme,

No more yielding but a dream,

Gentles, do not reprehend:

if you pardon, we will mend ..."

(Puck from Shakespeare's "A Midsummer Night's Dream")

The irony in the speech is that theatre can wake us up from the somnambulist state through which we drift each day. If our theatre is vibrant, we wont be sleeping.

Or perhaps it was all just a compilation of theatrical devices by Shakespeare to have fun with concepts of honour killing, abusive sexual relations and manipulation of ones' personal feelings ... Perhaps!

But "A Midsummer Night's Dream" does provide a blend of comic interactions, absurd situations and natural human feelings. It places the action in the most bizarre of circumstances while avoiding outright attack on any one group or people, world view or ideals. One can think of few works that accomplishes this feat so economically.

Education and the Dream

"A Midsummer Night's Dream" is certainly one of Shakespeare's most popular and enduring works. Students from all cultures are introduced to it in schools. Even Primary school aged children often get a touch of the Dream. It is often introduced as Shakespeare's play about love and relationships. While not to dispute this interpretation, it doesn't go far enough.

Schools might do well to introduce students to the nature of absurdity in theatre while opening up the world of examining life's absurdities. To discuss theatre and drama without any referencing of the epistemological dimensions that garner and shape artistic production is to deny students of the very grounding on which art has any plausible validity within education and life itself. Worse: it encourages ego driven attitudes and narcissistic approaches to the very notion of developing and presenting theatre.

Characteristics of an Epistemological Theatre Approach

OK! I have to go out on a limb here. We are all culturally bound in one way or another; accident of birth or result of personal trauma or some other life altering effect (eg. a brilliant theatre work or piece of literature or an accidental meeting with a remarkable person)! So accepting this, when studying or setting out to present a work of theatre, particularly a classic piece of theatre, it is incumbent upon us to begin as an Epistemologist.

Some Epistemological questions we might consider include:

  • Through what lens are we viewing this work? Identity? History? Politics? Belief systems? Artistic movements? Modernism? Traditional viewpoints ... etc ... etc ...

  • What was the original circumstance for the work?

  • What beliefs do the current group of presenters hold regarding their society, culture and personal situations?

  • What strategies might be engaged to challenge such beliefs?

  • What alternative social and cultural beliefs might be studied to open up alternatives?

  • Is there a history of presentation to the work that might inform us as to how previous artists and presenters approached the work?

  • Are there seeming anachronisms within the contexts of the work? What purpose might they serve?

  • What purpose might be served by presenting this work now?

And you might think of a trillion other epistemological questions.

The more you challenge through the epistemological approach, the more possible it is to breakthrough the straitjacket of cultural entrapment. Identity is the enemy of art. It crushes possibilities. The power of group thinking is the enemy of art. It squashes the possibilities for seeing potential beyond the tunnel vision imposed by accidents of birth.

No wonder authoritarians and thugs will do everything to quash art and theatre that challenge their manipulation of the cultural psyche.

I then suggest that teachers, artists, theatre directors, writers and students become epistemologists as grounded qualifications for their work as creators and generators of new societies and new potentials for human kind and the planet.


Joe Woodward 5 Sept 2021


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