Devised Antichrist: Theatre from and for the People
Regardless of the text, the venue, or the scale of the production, theatre must strive to be for everyone. I wrestle with how accessible or antagonistic the repertoire performed in our nation’s regional and Broadway theaters is today. Regardless of the strength of a production, accessibility is an essential practice when a cluster of strangers sits down together and agrees to open themselves up to a unified experience. This does not mean that theatre should be complacent; rather, it should commit to challenging its viewers as an irritant that puts modes of thought into question to awaken the audience. Demands like these may appear lofty and idealistic when ticket prices soar into the quadruple digits with little interest in rousing an audience from their seats, but I believe our production of the Chester Antichrist offered a glimpse of this kind of theatre, a theatre made from and for the people.
One way of understanding medieval drama reduces it to an interplay between the performative aspects of religion and theatre. In this view, deep religious conviction blended with comedic gags to produce a theatre that functioned simultaneously as a space for religious propaganda and scatological and sexual cracks. To reduce medieval theatre simply to these two components, however, neglects some of its most crucial qualities, namely its metatheacricality and its culture milieu. In the theatre today, we are given clear cues for when to laugh, when to clap, and when to simply stay seated and do nothing. With this expectation of a passive audience, the theatre loses a certain life that has escaped enormous houses to be found in less prestigious venues like street theatre. Our production of Antichrist refused the audience this passivity, perhaps one of its most successful features. Unbeknownst to the audience, the performance depended significantly upon their expectations and willingness to approach the piece with the notion of festivity, of eating, drinking, and commentating on the performance during its unfolding. The actors acknowledged the audience and responded to their offerings accordingly and altered the dialogue and blocking as needed, a fluidity between audience and actors that stems from a clear understanding of the narrative, not just the actors’ lines.
The process of crafting our production of Antichrist revealed to me medieval drama’s potential to make theatre from and for the people. Initially, I had doubts about how to craft a performance with students who were mostly not theatre majors. Those doubts reflected my upbringing in an institution that claims theatre is only for the experienced Shakespeare fanatic, and they were swiftly washed away by refreshing and enlightening discoveries. As the script developed and the players got on their feet, many of the methods, manifestos, and sentiments that I had read about the theatre were organically integrated with the impulses of the performers. Brecht’s ideas regarding metatheacricality appeared naturally as Maya and Megan delivered the lines with a cadence that stood apart from the emotional experience of the characters they portrayed, providing commentary rather than earnestly performing as king or undead being. The same Brechtian quality appeared through the megaphones, which broke the world of the play with its abrupt and intrusive vocal distortion and alarms. Brecht’s influence might also be detected in our choice of music, which was also independent of the text’s illusion, sounding more akin to a drunken chorus of amateurs than some hymning choir.
The process we used to create our performance hinged on practices of what’s commonly known as “devised theatre,” where an ensemble collaborates as a single, unified creative force, shaping every component of the performance based on their own experiences and understanding. Approaching the performance of medieval drama in this way opposed the conventional hierarchy of director, stage managers, actors, designer, etc. and resulted in ensemble that was familiar with each other’s creative strengths. Some students took on identifiable roles—Jenna took on the responsibilities usually allotted to a director, Katie those of set designer—but these roles were not thrust upon them. Rather, they chose to fulfill them because of their interest and expertise. In addition, they were not exempt from performing, giving them the opportunity to interact with the creative choices that they made not only as designers and creative staff but as performers as well. The process promoted self-sufficiency, evading the rigid, territorial effect that the designation of creative roles can sometimes breed. It was with this enhanced creative freedom that our ensemble managed to lift Antichrist from the shelf of academia and give it new life in performance.
“The idea that a group of students were stopped while in pursuit of academic and creative expression because of the injury their footsteps might visit on the university’s lawns offers a glimpse into the politics of space and access…”
Putting on our play in public space by its very nature also demanded a significant degree of inclusivity, resulting in further dialogue between the audience and actors. Without a velvet rope or the grandiose gold-leaf doors, spectators were free to come and go as they pleased. At one point, a security guard actually walked through the performance, presumably unaware that she was obstructing anything. She did not appear to knowingly break the illusion of performance, but even if she did, it was no matter. Her presence did not hinder the production but reinforced the constructedness of our theatre, stripping away any pretension to illusion, even lending some unexpected humor.
It’s rare for me to perform in as public and open a venue as we did, and doing so raised questions of the protocols of public and private space. The function of a space determines what is and what is not appropriate behavior inside it. What happens when the notion of public and private in space is disrupted? Our ensemble found out first hand when we were kicked off of the courtyard lawn during a rehearsal because we were “damaging the grass.” The idea that a group of students were stopped while in pursuit of academic and creative expression because of the injury their footsteps might visit on the university’s lawns offers a glimpse into the politics of space and access, a matter that has been at the heart of theatre since the invention of purpose-built theaters and proscenium stages.
The process of crafting our performance of Antichrist has invited me reflect on the merits of preservation in theatre. Surely there is some import to meticulously following original performance practices with all of their complexities, in the manner of London’s Globe Theatre. For myself, I have found that the pleasure in this kind of theatre-makng tends to be of an intellectual and indulgent sort that abandons theatre’s most foundational qualities, namely, its intent to rouse and interrogate social, political, and existential conventions. Preservation in theater can, however, be usefully practiced as a means of integrating modes of performance from previous historical periods into the modern world in order to expand and enrich the production. That is to say, theatre is not bound to language or style, but to honest, specific, and original choices that stems from impulse, feeling, and dramaturgical work. This is the approach I feel our ensemble executed with our production of Antichrist. I wonder about how far our process might have gone, had we the time and resources to extend it further; still, what we were able to accomplish was suggestive and significant, providing insight about how new approaches to theatre can open unexpectedly accessible and inclusive avenues.