Tuesday, 1 March 2016

Theatre Thoughts: Traditional Storytelling

I recently went on a visit to the Horniman Museum in London (if you haven't been, it's a lovely afternoon out, filled with weird and wonderful collections!)

Very weird! The famous Horniman Mermaid!

One of the current exhibitions is Project Tobong, which is aiming to "...preserve and reinvigorate..." traditional forms of theatre and storytelling in Indonesia. 

It is a common thing that we hear - traditional, rural theatre companies across the world are dying out. Maybe this is a costs issue (touring theatre companies even in the UK are under threat!) as companies in less wealthy countries struggle to maintain their nomadic lifestyles in the face of rising prices. And as the world becomes smaller and more connected, even those in previously unreachable places may be connected to the internet, or own a television, increasing their opportunities for entertainment, and, possibly, decreasing their interest in what may be seen as an old-fashioned pastime.

Image Source: projecttobong.com/artwork/
On the one hand, theatre must evolve. It is a constantly changing, reactive art form. And this is good. Any art, or indeed any thing, must evolve in order to stay relevant. Therefore, do we need to protect old, possibly irrelevant forms of communication or art?
Theatre must reflect the times. In these times we are living in what has become known as the Global Village. Theatre often reflects this, with productions such as The Lion King or Les Miserables packed and shipped in their entirety across the globe. The McDonalds of theatre; the same whether you see it in London or Tokyo. Culture is a commodity which is sold across continents. The Global Village has the same cultural reference points and knowledge, resulting in a homogenised theatrical culture.

On the other hand, stories which are relevant in one cultural area will not have the same relevance in another area: what a person living in Peru takes from a production will be very different to what a person living in Russia will read into it, even though they may be watching an exact reproduction of the same performance.
With the rise of the Global Village, traditions, and therefore traditional theatre, are under threat from this growing uniformity of culture. We are at risk of losing interesting and unique forms of art and communication, and thousands of people are losing touch with their histories. 

Image Source: quotehd.com

Personally I feel it would be such a shame to lose traditional theatre; Project Tobong mentions the "ritual of historic storytelling and performance." Theatre grew from ritual and rite, and to forget our roots would mean that we lose touch with the purpose of theatre itself.
Cultures can learn from one another, elements of one theatre tradition can influence and inform another to create new performance styles, without losing the authenticity of the original forms. In the same way that galleries go to such pains to preserve the great artworks from hundreds of years ago, we should be protecting the theatrical traditions before they are swallowed up.

This line of thinking also led me to wonder if, in hundreds of years, our own theatrical tradition - staged, text-based - will become obsolete and redundant? Will theatre practitioners of the future look back on our culture and fight to preserve scripts and scenery, citing reasons of heritage and history? 

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