Let’s talk about unconventional, abstract theatre!!!
(cue: sound of readers clicking away)
Hello, you one dear reader who has stayed.
Herein lies a topic that few people are actually interested in. The words “abstract theatre” hit their victims like an obsessively and pretentiously aged cheese: you’re told that it will be Powerful and Nutty and Revolutionary, but it just tastes like aggressive mold and you’d rather just have a nice and normal slice of (cheddar? gouda? let me know in comments), thank you very much. My point: abstract theatre often appears too “artsy” or “intellectual” to be a good time. Indeed, I have a mother who doesn’t understand why Picasso paints the way he does when he was at one point such a “good”, realistic artist. But I digress.
People, we need to have a talk about abstraction. Not too long ago, I went to a production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime (a play based on the book of the same name). I’d never read the book and hardly knew what to expect, but I can tell you that I was absolutely not expecting to enter the theatre to find a three-dimensional grid across the stage walls, glowing white cubes, and a harpooned dog center stage. The play follows Christopher, a boy who is quite good in math but struggles understanding the motivations of those around him and is overwhelmed by human touch.
The story takes place in residential/suburban England and London, making its way between the two by a (particularly long) train ride. There are no houses or traditionally realistic sets; props are small and handheld. We see Christopher walking on walls and floating through space with the help of company members as he monologues; we find him right-side-up and sideways on the train as he becomes more and more overwhelmed with the circumstances around him.
Here are three reasons why this story demands all this “weird” staging.
- It sets a tone. England is not exactly new all over — some parts of it can look quite quaint and classical. Yet minimalist sets and technological effects onstage converse with each other to create a fresh feeling of modernity and innovation. The conversations at the heart of this story relate to present-day struggles; parenting, otherness, dreams, and betrayal in a contemporary context. We understand that the show is letting go of any “charming” sets to delve into far into the “realer” issues at the heart of the show.
- It allows Christopher a blank canvas. Christopher is a unique kid, and he sees the world vibrantly and on his own terms. We need to see him floating in space with his pet rat to understand him; need to see him drawing faces on the stage and walls as he grapples with understanding emotion. We need to see numbers floating as he makes a calculation, and we need to see the vibrant way that Christopher thinks painted out on the stage in his own personal way.
- Ultimately, we desperately need to understand Christopher as a character, and abstraction is about the only way that we as average audience members can experience the world as he experiences it. Christopher is alien to so much of “everyday” life. Thus, in the long and seemingly endless train sequence, in which Christopher attempts to navigate complex train stations filled with lots and lots of people, we need to see more than just a lost boy getting onto a train. We need to see what it looks like to be so overjoyed and curious about the new surroundings while also being bombarded with the signs and announcements echoing throughout the station. We need to watch as he learns the choreographed way that the people file through and watch for the trains, we need to see the strobe lights as he crumples under the fear and stress and confusion of his situation. Christopher does not experience the world in the way most of us do, and the abstraction and unconventional approaches exercised in the play’s staging very deliberately choose to tell the story about a real and complicated boy, rather than his surrounding circumstances or the mystery he is trying to solve.
Ultimately, abstraction appeals not to logic, but emotion and perception. While our logical minds are often pleased by a clearly defined fairy tale or television drama, our emotional minds grasp on the more artistic choices as a means of getting under the skin of someone or someplace new, particularly to de-otherize them (which is exactly what ends up happening to those who watch Christopher’s journey).
At the end of the day, don’t be afraid of abstraction. As strange as it may seem, it is not just a pathetically pretentious fromage of a technique, but can be fascinating and absolutely necessary to telling the right story.