For many people, theater is pure entertainment, the chance to experience some great acting or to enjoy the glitz of an extravagant production. But beneath the surface, there is another aspect to the art, one that Bruce A. Levitt and Beth F. Milles, Performing and Media Arts, address. Along with creating and producing plays and other types of performances, they explore the meaning behind the bright lights: What is theater’s value to 21st-century society? In what way does it serve as a conduit for performers and audience members to explore their own humanity? And how does theater today respond to contemporary audiences steeped in the immediacy of smart phones and 10-minute YouTube videos?
Dark Drama and Comedy
“It’s an exciting time to be in performance,” says Milles who is an actor, director, and playwright. She sees boundless possibilities for exploration of theater and performance in the modern world. One of her current interests involves the intersection of comedy and terror—that dark edge where the conflicting emotions collide.
Contemporary theater and film are increasingly blurring the boundaries between dark drama, comedy, and other forms of entertainment in response to strong forces in society, she says. “There is an undercurrent of terror that is occurring in society right now. There are droughts, war, viruses we may not be able to understand. The terror is driving a kind of pathos, a desire to laugh, which happens during war time or when people are facing social difficulties.”
That twin pull of entertainment and fear, Milles says, is as old as the performing arts. Her own area of focus is commedia dell'arte, a 16th-century Italian form of improvisation that has always pushed the boundaries of performance. For years she has studied clowning—and collaborated with many people connected with it, including Cirque du Soleil clown Daniel Passer. Currently she is working on a project with Passer entitled The Infinite Infinitesimal, which, she says, interrogates humor in an attempt to discover “what isn’t funny at all, and why that is painful and beautiful.” The work includes a beguiling collection of performance and visual imagery: a dance piece, torchlight, keyboard and accordion music, go-carts, and a staircase. If all goes as planned, the performance should shock the audience’s expectations.
“Clowns start by going too far,” Milles says. “They don’t start and then go too far; they begin at a point of going too far so that we’re uncomfortable and become engaged. And then we travel together to insight.”
Reclaiming One’s Humanity
A central aspect of theater is its ability to transform, says Levitt. For every production that touches audiences, there are actors who have pushed themselves to explore their own humanity. Creating a performance is like baking, he explains. “You take the story and yourself, and you transform them into a third thing—the character. Just as when you bake a cake: you mix the eggs and flour and sugar, and you bake it. Now where are those ingredients? They’re still there, but they’re transformed into something else.”
One of Levitt’s main research projects involves transformation in an unlikely place: the Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. There he works with the men of Phoenix Players Theater Group (PPTG), a theater troop founded by two prisoners and consisting of around seven members at any one time. “The men see theater as a lens to view their own behavior,” Levitt says, “a way to walk a path towards their own redemption. They say that to really transform yourself you’ve got to start your own process and reclaim your humanity.”
With the guidance of Levitt and other performing arts professionals from Cornell and Ithaca College, the men meet once a week for classes and rehearsals and then perform every 18 months for an invited outside audience of 80 people. “Their productions are rooted in their own work and in the work of others that interests them,” says Levitt.
In 2012, for instance, the members of the PPTG looked at Shakespeare and then wrote their own work reflecting on their lives in relationship to the Shakespearean pieces. Levitt and his colleagues filmed a documentary, Maximum Will, about that production, and they are now in the process of final editing.
“My work with the PPTG is a civically engaged project,” says Levitt. “And that is, in itself, a form of research.” When the documentary is finished, he explains, its release will be, in essence, “publication”—putting the project’s results into the public sphere.
Integration of Mind and Body
The opportunity to explore and learn about one’s own motivations and abilities is one of the benefits the theater and the performing arts bring to academia, Levitt says, as is the integration of mind and body. “We add a different way of knowing and thinking. Students spend most of the time separating mind from body, but the relationship between them is fundamental to discovery and inspiration.”
Theater also gives students a way to reflect on all the things they’ve learned, according to Milles. “They thrive the most when they can make connections between what they’re studying or learning, and then put that into their theater work. They’re making pieces of theater, they’re adapting a piece of writing, but they’re drawing from something in another class—biology or art history, for instance.”
But there’s another process going on with modern students, and modern audiences in general. “They’re grabbing entertainment in an aggressive way, as never before,” says Milles. Whether it’s a short documentary video on YouTube or Orange Is the New Black on Netflix, people are in charge of what they watch and when they watch it. They also are exposed to a huge amount of information that they must synthesize. This means theater professionals, as well as the students, need to be aware of how their work resonates and intersects with other information that is available in the world, she says.
“Now a clown piece isn’t just a clown piece,” Milles says. “It’s a clown piece about war in the Middle East or about illness. The news is everywhere, and our young people can’t filter it out. We can’t ignore this is what’s happening, so we must find ways to serve it, challenge it, refine it, in a way.”
Theater, a Live Relevant Experience
Milles is addressing the implications of a modern, technology-driven world in her current work, in which she looks at the impact of personal technology on the individual, and in her research, in which she postulates a new form of comedy that will incorporate not just technology but small segments of moment, ultra concentrated, similar to a user’s experience of the internet. “My research is about figuring out how to make a performance a live, individual experience and a synthesized experience at the same time,” she says.
“We add a different way of knowing and thinking,” says Levitt.
For Levitt, whose specialty is Shakespeare, the issue isn’t changing the nature of performance so much as bringing modern audiences into the world of the play. “There is always a palpable connection between the live audience and the actors and text in a good performance of a good play,” he says. “Good plays always resonate and are always relevant—even though they might not be seen as immediate. There's a difference between the immediate and the relevant: what's ‘relevant’ to our life isn't always immediate; and what's ‘immediate’ isn't always going to prove to be relevant.”
The relevancy of a work can be traced by looking at its roots and production history, and that’s exactly what Levitt does when he’s gearing up to direct a play. “I research that script,” he says. “I need to know everything I can about how that play was written, the styles of acting involved, and the theater technology that’s evolved and gone into producing that play through time.”
With classic plays, that history can stretch back hundreds of years—even thousands. And that underscores the value of theater and the performing arts to humanity, Levitt says. “Humans told stories of the hunt around the campfire,” he says. “The performing arts are older than civilization.”