Theater In Conversation
ANNE BOGART with Tara Ahmadinejad
In mid-May, I began a correspondence with American theater icon, Anne Bogart, director, writer, educator, and founder of SITI Company whose decades-long career has influenced generations of theater practitioners. Anne was my mentor in graduate school, and while her counsel often replays in my head, I hadn't regularly kept in touch with her. Anne’s ideas about theater and process are both drawn from life, and offer philosophical frameworks for approaching life. Her teachings on the interplay between leading and following, stuckness and unstuckness, and control and surrender can as much be applied to directing and performing theater as they can to any challenging situation one might encounter. And so recently I had been thinking about her: “What’s Anne doing now? How is she thinking about this moment?” When I wrote to her, we initially focused on the theater's “pause,” and how she is navigating this moment of great uncertainty. But a week or so into this process the great uprising began in defense of Black lives. And just as the protests felt to me like an inevitable explosion out of the pandemic rather than a total change in subject, the shift in context for our conversation further pointed to the potential in the uncertainty of the current moment.
Tara Ahmadinejad (Rail): With everything canceled, how does your work in theater influence the way you're approaching the present moment?
Anne Bogart: The theater is an artform about the present moment, about sharing breath, space, time, and imagination with others. And all of this is a good training for the current moment. What we are doing now is emphatically not social distancing. No. The social aspect of our lives has been amped up, albeit on Zoom and now on the streets in lively demonstrations of empathy for others. And so the theater work that I have done all my life has led me to handle these moments in the ways that I am doing.
A successful artistic process requires a symphonic relationship between control and surrender. A surfer both navigates and yields in the face of a great wave, at once taking control of the wave, then being carried by it, then taking control again, then carried again. If they go too slowly and resist the wave, or go too fast or push, both only lead to confusion. The surfer must ride the momentum, stay centered with both an open heart and open eyes. The best strategy in surfing, as in life and artmaking, is to navigate and position oneself within the flux of circumstances. And it is possible, not only to learn to accept being out of control, but to enjoy it and be good at it.
Rail: I think of you as someone who draws from a lot of different sources—philosophy, science, TV, opera, overheard conversations, TED talks, peep shows—ultimately in order to uncover what it is about theater in particular that is so vital, so essential. And now we're in a moment where there is no theater. (Is that right? Are we in a moment where there is no theater?) What is missing right now?
Bogart: Perhaps now is the moment to contemplate what we can let go of. What in the overwhelming deluge of information and busyness of our pre-COVID times can we dispense with? We have the opportunity to ask ourselves the essential questions, the questions that you, Tara, are asking: what is the essence of our art form? When does something become theater? How can we make pathways towards one another? How can we take the time to consider our lives and our actions—pared down to what matters? Now is the time to prepare to act. And then to act with passion and empathy.
I am thinking a lot about prisoners of war during the Vietnam War and the Second World War who found ways to communicate with one another by tapping signals through the walls of the cells that separated them. The isolated prisoners—by tapping and sending messages, one to the next—were able to maintain social cohesion and sanity. Our current job is to do something similar. We need to find ways to send communicative and empathic signals to one another and to listen closely to the signals coming towards us. In this way, we might be able to create renewed social fabric that can help us move forward together.
Rail: Last week—with the curfew, constant helicopters, and repeated senseless police violence at protests—was horrific. But ultimately it seems the protesting and many other types of direct action are having an impact. There is so much momentum. Overall, I think the context of the pandemic has helped fuel this movement. It’s further revealed the racial disparities when it comes to healthcare and access. And I think it's doing just what you're saying for many of us: paring down the busyness in our lives, and making room to prioritize how we employ our energy. My hope is that the pandemic has reminded people to center care for one another, and that that will play into any reenvisioning of the future and the dismantling of toxic systems.
There's always a danger with broadening movements that messages get confused or watered down yet, despite history, I am hopeful. The Minneapolis City Council's pledge to disband the police feels promising.
I share these reflections to lead into the question of how you envision the future of theater. It seems that, in theater, this moment similarly has the potential to help clarify values and goals (and tactics!), just as you're saying.
Bogart: Now as we move forward, as we become increasingly able to share [physical] space with one another, we must be able to respond and create with alacrity to the new given circumstances. And these circumstances are changing ever so swiftly. We need to make sure that a fair election can happen. Oh, and we need to prop up Joe Biden.
The theater is about the present moment and bringing ourselves into the present moment with a sense of the past and a proposal for the future. And what we propose to the world is how humans can get along better. We are creating model societies. What resonates today? What can touch us where we live? What goes straight to the heart?
We absolutely do have to, as you say, clarify our values, goals, and tactics. We have to change and to adjust. The theater has to alter its current ways and means as part of the movement forward. In what we do—and how we do and organize what we do—we have to model well how to be together. A shift in power is always uncomfortable and so we have to learn to be good at being uncomfortable.
Rail: I love what you said earlier about letting go. Are there doors that have closed or are closing that have you thinking, “Good riddance!” Are there things you think we need to let go of that are harder to part with but feel like a necessary sacrifice as we dream up a better future?
Bogart: I am letting go of my assumption that the theater world is a liberal haven of equality. I am giving up trying to get comfortable. I am giving up the acceleration of life that was brought about by technological innovation and the capitalist pressures to accomplish more in less time. I am getting rid of the distorted internal and external pressure to speed up.
Rather than dreaming up a specific future, I am committing to the present, to being useful and awake with and for those near me—at medium distance—and far from me. I am committing to perceiving the world with as much accuracy as is possible, to telling the truth and to courageously take action when action is required. I believe in describing things into existence and so my job is to listen well and speak productively from a point of view of intense listening.