On Presence or Why Theatre Matters at All

There’s nothing like applying for jobs and grants to make you think about why you do something (and to make you ask if it’s all worth it).  As much as I get frustrated with all the forms and questions and selling of myself, it’s been good for me to slog through the mountain of applications.  I may not have much hair left, but I’ve gotten really good at articulating (in one page or less) what I do and why it’s important.  Whether I’m talking about directing, or teaching, or devising, or dancing, the how and the why of what I do comes down to being present.

When I make theatre I have to be present.  I can’t phone it in.  If I do, the work will almost certainly be crap.  I might be able to create some interesting images, and the actors I work with might be able to find moments here and there that are dynamic, but there won’t be any heart in what we make.  While I really have no control over others in terms of their presence and awareness, I know that one sure way discouraging presence in others is to be energetically absent myself.  If, as a director/leader/facilitator/vision-bringer, my head (or heart) is in another place, then it’s nearly impossible for the rest of the group to buy into the process and to be present themselves.

So why does this matter?  What’s so great about “presence” anyway.  Well, think about the last time you tried to talk to someone (a friend, lover, family member, total stranger) about something that was difficult or personal or just plain old important to you in that moment, only to have them not actually listen to you.  Maybe they made affirming or comforting noises, but looked like they were itching to get away, or maybe they never even took their eyes off their computer screen the whole time you were talking.  However it happened (and I’m pretty darn sure it has happened to all of us), it feels like crap.

When someone I interact with is in this non-present state, i.e. if their mind or attention is totally somewhere else, it ticks me off.  When it happens habitually, it makes me lose faith in humanity.  And no, I’m not being melodramatic.  If we can’t take five minutes to listen to each other, to pause what we’re doing and to be present with another human being for even an instant, then what’s the point of even being here?  And, god forbid, if we’re not able to even be present and attuned to our own experience, then things are really in the pits.  If we hold our hearts and minds off to one side in our work and our leisure time (which is a trend I see too much), then we end up being absent players in our own lives.

I know this isn’t a new thing.  Writers and artists and thinkers have addressed this question of presence for thousands of years.  However, it’s something that just keeps cropping up.  I struggle with it every day, especially in light of all the different screens that have come to dominate even my relatively non-technical life.

Making theatre and sharing it with others is my way of insisting on presence—of being present in my own life, and asking others to do the same.  When I am creating theatre, I have to bring my whole self to the work.  My history, my opinions, my fears, my emotions, my attention, my heart, none of it can get left behind.  If I only bring part of myself, then I will only see and be able to shape the work with part of myself.  And, if I don’t insist on being present, then I can hardly ask or expect others to be, and the work suffers.  By establishing from the first moment of rehearsal that presence is necessary and required from everyone involved, the stage is, literally, set for a depth of experience and connection that is impossible to fake.

I believe that an audience feels this.  Part of me would love to give a “presence lecture” to each person as they walk in the door to see one of my plays, but I know that’s just my control freak side talking.  But, if the work that I have helped make has been crafted with a sense of presence and immediate experience, and if these qualities are cultivated and engaged in performance as well as in rehearsal, then I think that does something all the same.  To me, that’s what the spell of theatre is.  It’s watching people have an experience, and being reminded, on some level, that you are alive and are having an experience as well.

This is not something that can happen in the same way via a screen.  It’s also not something that happens automatically  in the theatre.  There’s a lot of theatre, some interesting, some awful, in which presence is not a priority.  I, personally, don’t see great value in that, but everyone has their taste.  I have to ask, though, if you have the opportunity to create work that touches on what it is to be human—that allows people to both be in the present moment and to be aware that they are there—why wouldn’t you?