copyright © 2006 Todd Ristau

(lights up)

Tamathy Christiansen has asked me for over a year to write a piece for NPR's This I Believe series. I haven't done it yet...but I did write something 15 years ago that I do believe very much today as when I wrote it, and so I am going to offer it to her and to you tonight. This I belive.


(A doctrine for new work and for those who create it)

The theatre is in great danger. There is no money for it to continue as it has, and because the theatre can never hope to offer the security and tangible "product for sale" which film and television can, the money available to it will also continue to diminish.

When she launched the Federal Theatre Program in the 30’s, Hallie Flannigan gave a stern warning. She said that in the face of new technologies like radio and film, the theatre risked becoming a museum curiosity. That if committed, dedicated action were not taken by theatre practitioners, their medium would be relegated to quaint pictures of yesterday. She said that we must be constantly exploring and examining what sets theatre apart from the electronic media so that the theatre would never be seen as a shabby imitator of new avenues of expression.

More than Seventy years later we are still called upon to prove the importance of live theatre with each and every performance.

Unlike Hallie’s, our audience has grown up with television and cinema as its primary forms of cultural awareness and expression. In fact, it has grown up with television and cinema that has also grown up with television and cinema.

Because movies and TV provide a false measure of merit through the enoromous sums paid to its practicioners, people regard the theatre as a place where actors, longing to be liberated from poverty and the difficult conditions of the stage, wait to be discovered. Only if they are good enough will they rise to the mega-buck stardom of the screen, or so the salary test implies.

Theatre can not hope to rival film or television for financial return, and consequently the majority of the public sees no comprable value in it. In such an environment, why should anyone be dedicated to theatre and its survival?

To those who ask this, I ask, "How can the theatre be a vital force if the motivation of the artists creating it is job security or recognition?"

The time has come to release ourselves from the mad and futile struggle to rival television and film on the level of television and film, and instead to search for and be true to what is significantly different in our art form from the other media.

Every artist must understand this dilemma.

The artist must have a firm idea about where the theatre is, how it got there, and a vision of where he or she will take it with their own contributions to it.

Theatre artists must be able to articulate their vision of the theatre, and support the choices made in regard to that vision, and above all, be absolutely consistent with that vision. Every piece of work the artist does must be seen as a reflection of that vision and a support of those choices.

If a play would be a better TV show, do not do it as a play. If the play is waiting to be a film, let it wait, don’t be tempted to let it betray you. As an artist in the theatre, you must do what can only be done in the theatre, and must ignite in other artists attempting to bring the play to life with this same enthusiasm for our art, the same pride, and the same fanatic devotion, or they will only create a plays which are flat, hesitant, and ashamed that they are not yet good enough to be something else.

I will not have that in my theatre. I will not help to put theatre in a place where it can only aspire to stare back from behind museum glass reveling in past relevance.

How? What can be done?

To begin with, never allow yourself the devil’s tool of thinking the theatre will feed you. You, the artist, exist to feed the theatre.

Grotowski has said that moral cynicism, careerism, and the pursuit of material values are the most dangerous symptoms of demoralization. What can demoralized artists contribute to the world except portrayals of their own cynicism and bitterness? This is the kind of food the theatre will choke on.

What do you feed the theatre? You feed it your best ideas, your strongest opinions, your deepest feelings, your most burning love, your objective observations, your most private theories, your most terrible fears, your secret hopes, your grandest dreams, your most terrifying nightmares, YOUR ENTIRE LIFE...everything!

Except your vanity, if it can be helped.

As artists, the theatre must be your religion, you must be absolute in your devotion, and you must understand that theatre is not a vocation, but a living, breathing mirror unafraid to reflect TRUTH back into the face of a changing social order.

A film can not notice when the audience laughs out loud where no laughter is intended, any more than it can take notice and reflect the changing world in which its audience lives. The theatre takes all this very personally. And changes itself to suit the needs of its audience whether the audience is aware of those needs or ignorant of them.

I argue with those who hate untrained audiences because those audiences show how bored they are. A trained audience has come to the theatre to learn nothing, and so those who make the theatre learn nothing from performing for them. Thier road leads all of theatre further into stasis.

No Shame is an undeducated theatre, learning by doing, and the roles of writer, performer, and audience rotate many times during a single evening of pieces. As a result No Shame is an emergent system creating a vibrant and relevant artistic community which will lead the theatre rather than follow established conventions.

No shame is a poor theatre. This is good, because a poor theatre is probably going to be the most honest one. The one with the most receptive audience because they have likely paid very little to get in. With the open submission policy for pieces, if people are fed up by what they are offered, the power is available to them to use this same venue to do it better and change the very shape of No Shame to suit their needs. And as a result, those who make theatre at No Shame must be open to all responses, as eager to be told they are failing as to be reassured that they are succeeding because only through such knowledge will growth be possible.

It is absolutely true that No Shame is your theatre, but ownership of that theatre demands that you justify its existence by doing the best work you possibly can!

No Shame should never be construed to mean No Pride.

No Shame is your theatre, yes, but what do you want that theatre to be?

I, for one, can't wait to find out.


(Lights down)


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