The recent annual conference of the Association for Theatre in Higher Education (ATHE) in Montreal turned my head around in several ways. The theme of the conference was “Je me souviens,” which is the motto of Quebec and means something like, “Lest we forget” or simply “I remember.” As a result, many of us were thinking in various ways about memory and history in relation to theatre and performance.As journeyman directors we may be called upon to stage stories drawing on a potentially vast range of content, and few if any of us can claim to be experts in so many subjects. For a period of weeks we lead a theatre company and then an audience into territory that may be completely unfamiliar, not only to them but to us. Certainly part of our job is to study the available “maps,” researching geography, society, culture, history–memory–to illuminate our paths. But how much must we learn of each setting, each community of characters, each character’s belief system, each time period? How much must we, in effect, “remember?”
One excellent panel I attended in Montreal addressed questions related to these in ways I found thought-provoking and ultimately reassuring. The renowned American director Sharon Ott began with a rather startling statement: “I profoundly doubt the veracity of the stories we tell ourselves when we remember.” This launched a fascinating discussion with Canadian directors Gordon McCall and Catherine Joncas that included contemplation of history as un-knowable in any absolute way. They talked of learning to trust stories that are more deeply connected to spirituality than is factual history. At another good session, Prof. Siouxsie Easter spoke of the idea from Simon McBurney (Complicité‘s Mnemonic) that remembering is “not just an act of retrieval but a creative thing.”
(An alternate point-of-view is emerging among some LGBTQ people in response to the trailer for Stonewall, a fictionalized movie treatment of the 1969 rebellion in New York’s Greenwich Village that lit a fire under the gay rights movement, which was written by playwright Jon Robin Baitz and directed by Roland Emmerich of action-adventure movie fame. Some are calling for a boycott of the movie, saying it “whitewashes” the riots by downplaying or neglecting the courageous contributions of people of color and trans people such as the African American drag queen Marsha P. Johnson. Baitz and Emmerich are saying that the role of diverse people is depicted in the full film even though their story centers on a handsome young white gay cisgender man [an American who happens to be played by an English actor, but that’s a subject for another post]. The boycott’s leaders say they want the truth, the facts, the history of the rebellion to be represented accurately in the film, and all accounts do indeed suggest that drag queens, trans people and people of color were indeed among those that took the lead in the Stonewall fight. [For an exhaustively researched account of the riots, see my friend David Carter’s amazing book, Stonewall.])
If history is subjective and inevitably incomplete, though, is there any point in researching it? I started to ask in the Ott/McCall/Joncas session if these directors didn’t still want to learn as much as possible about the historical context of whatever they were directing, but I concluded that the question answers itself. Then another person attending the session asked a more penetrating question: What if an invention, well-intentioned but born in part of a lack of information, becomes a cultural misappropriation? When is it acceptable to use another’s story for our own artistic purposes?
Joncas had a provocative answer, and one I hope is right: “When it’s good.” Maybe we can never know as much as we would like, or as others might think we should, about the contexts of the plays we direct, and certainly we can never know it all. But if we come to know as much as we can, inquiring and collaborating with an open mind and voracious curiosity with our dramaturgs and other team members, if we work with respect and integrity, and if, in the end, our productions are worthy of being called “art,” perhaps we can hope that is enough.