The proverbial empty space. The eternally expectant audience. An interval. An actor enters carrying a chair and sets it before the audience. Leaves. An interval with added nuance. Our already thoroughly expectant audience is now perhaps even moreso. An actor enters and sits in the chair. Now an interval with fresh enhancements.
What is the event?
In school I was apprenticed to an artist who asked that question constantly. He purposely invested it with a Zen-like mystery. Well, tell us what an “event” is and we, eager to please students that we are, will answer your question. No response. An event was an event when it was self-evident. Many an actor would then try to talk his or her way into something. And retreat from any grasp of the event. Directors and playwrights were not safe. They, too, were asked the question. The event was the essence of the matter. And the essence was mysterious and hard to articulate, but our teacher conveyed the conviction that this essence was the core of our work in the theatre. The audience and the event. The heart of the matter.
“What is the event?” Ask the actor sitting in the chair. “I am waiting for her to arrive. I need to tell her something. The truth. I intend to tell her the truth. Why isn’t she here? I sit and wait.” After the actor gives the above response you follow up with “But what is the event?” What can the actor say now? And will it be a touch defensive? What is the event? Does the audience see the actor waiting? Or see the character waiting? Do we say that what the audience sees depends on the story or the given circumstances? Does it depend on the truth that the actor intends to tell? Do we need to know such things to talk about the event? The question triggers reflections and more questions.
Re-read the first paragraph.
The writing attempts to describe a situation and a series of….events? It attempts to give an account from a particular point of view. Whose? Is the writer a member of the audience? Was the writer even present on the occasion? Is the whole thing made up? Just a series of illustrative descriptions in a highly self-conscious tone? Is the writer the actor? And could the actor be reflecting back on the occasion? Or is this a depiction of the actor’s experience as it happened? Too objective to belong to the actor? Is the description scrupulous to detail, detached, sparse, what? And what is the event?
You may think it silly to say, “The event was my re-reading the first paragraph and then jumping down and reading the previous paragraph and now reading this one.” But you are correct to note that an event is different from a description of an event. Not silly or precocious in the least to make that observation. You, in fact, were the agent in that event. The cause. The human cause. You were prompted to be the agent by some instructions you read, but that is just a complication, a little extra agency behind the scenes.
Re-read the previous two paragraphs.
Nestled in those paragraphs are little bits of reflection which, if gathered together in a certain way, contain a foolish attempt to define the theatre event. You take a moment to gather them up and see what coheres.
Here’s my version of the attempt: an event in the theatre is any human activity which facilitates experiences of memory, thought, communication, or emotion. It seems self-evident enough, but its origin is rooted in what struck me as singular: an event is what inspires historians. What does an historian work with? Such observations and questions can lead to thinking about the event as some moment of experience which is capable of writing its way into us and remaining. An event, then, is what people experience or witness in such a way that something about it gets inscribed in memory and so becomes available for future use. An event has something about it which is transferable, like a love note passed in the back of the classroom. An event is a moment with a shelf-life. An event travels time and space through the traces it leaves in our minds.
To ask “What is the event?” is a way to find what has remained after the moment is over. Has what just happened left anything for memory, thought, communication, or emotion? You might ask an actor, “Are you making an event?” Or “What are you going to do to make this an event?” “What are you going to do that memory can hang onto?” It may sometimes be the case that asking “What would my character do in this situation?” is not going to yield enough fruitful material, particularly if the resulting actions do not have clarity as events. It is not necessarily stepping out of the moment or the relationship to think in terms of events. It’s not necessarily”playing to the audience.” It’s not just the audience’s memory you are concerned with. You can also attempt to give something to a stage relationship that will travel with it or even alter it.
Simple activities on a stage can be invested with an awareness of event as a way to dispel tentative or incoherent behavior and speech. Use a focus on the event as a way to get to the vital reality. The actor walks out and sits in the chair. Is it an event? Is the action writing itself into history? Is something getting inscribed which sits in the gut? Did something get written into the actor’s memory at that moment?
To speak of the event also allows for a way to approach more abstract or experimental types of performance. We can imagine creating performances through a building up of events, a sequencing of events, a coordination of events. Events may serve a narrative. Events may harmonize in a particular way to serve a narrative, but it might be possible to re-arrange events, to re-harmonize within a narrative, or to arrange events which reach to the audience audience both within and outside an evolving narrative structure. Since a narrative helps inscribe events into a workable history, to serve up events outside a traditional narrative is to open new areas to the processes of memory, thought, communication, and emotion, calling on new non-narrative possibilities for organization. Or if you believe we are all narrative all the time, events in radical compostion may reveal new narratives.
Rehearse any material with an event awareness. See what happens.
Take an anecdote or tale or fable. Create a series of events which serve the narrative drive of the story in the clearest possible way.
Compose an arrangement of events and allow the story to weave its way through as a presence, but focus most of the events on evoking unspoken or emotional or atmospheric undercurrents discovered in your unfolding responses to the story.
Create an event poem without narrative support.