McKee:
theatre, in its greatest form, is language

Giants of the theatre and big screen alike; Robert McKee, Lyn Gardner and Carol Tambor, converged at Regent’s University London on Monday night for a thought provoking In Conversation, focusing on the subject of the state of theatre today.

A lively and heated debate at times, topics of conversation included the spectacle of theatre versus focusing on the expressivity of the written (and subsequently spoken) word; playwrights having sole creativity and control over the lines and elements of his/her play versus a collaborative effort (whereby actors might add or amend a line as an improvement); the place of truth, social justice, and political correctness in the theatre; and the evolution of British theatre.

Lyn Gardner, former theatre critic at the Guardian and Associate Editor of the Stage, opened the conversation with a comment on the huge changes British theatre has welcomed over the last quarter of a century.

“The energy and interest of younger generations in terms of exploring form, those big questions about what it is that theatre might be, and the place of theatre in the 21st century is actually enormously changed. I think there has been more change in British theatre in the last 25 years than there probably was in the previous century.

“I think that if you put that together with a real shift in terms of who is getting to make theatre, who has access to theatre, where it is happening and why it is happening, and what might be the role of the theatre maker in the 21st century: is it simply to make plays, or is it to have a much bigger and wider function within British society?”

Robert McKee, a Fulbright Scholar and the most sought after screenwriting lecturer around the globe, didn’t quite share Lyn’s sentiments on the healthy conditition of contemporary theatre.

“I have a sense of theatre that might be different. Theatre, in its greatest form, in my opinion, is language. It is language raised to the highest possible level of expressivity. Starting with Shakespeare, it’s rooted in language.

“Cinema is rooted in image. The highest form of cinema is a silent film – pure image. The highest form of theatre is pure language. You should be able to sit in a play, close your eyes, and love it.

“What I see on contemporary stage is dialogue no better than a typical TV episode. What I see in contemporary theatre is a diminishment of language – more and more television, and less poetic. The theatre absolutely demands language lifted to the highest level of expressivity.

“Between television and the internet, the expressivity of language is being diminished, and I worry that if language goes, the theatre goes.

“At least articulate the play as written. I appreciate all the other possibilities, and the expansion of theatre, but I’m looking at theatre now, and I’m wondering which plays in the year 2018 will be revived in 2118?

“What is so universally human, that 100 years will not matter? That’s the kind of theatre that I love. Something that is profoundly, universally human, that time will not diminish it.

McKee, who has dedicated the last 30 years to educating and mentoring screenwriters, novelists, playwrights, poets, documentary makers, producers, and directors internationally, said of the new partnership went on to add: “There are two things an audience wants – they want the anthropological pleasure of discovering a world they don’t know. They go to the theatre with the hope that the curtain will come up on a world they’ve never seen before.

“The second thing they want, is that when they enter that world, they will discover themselves. They will discover that in this world they’ve never seen before, that the characters are universally human.

“There’s something profoundly human at the heart of those characters that allows the audience to empathise and involve themselves and live in a world they could never themselves. When you do that beautifully, that play has a chance – it allows people to live vicariously in worlds they’ll never know.

“When you do that beautifully, it will live and enrich the lives of civilisation.”
Carol Tambor, of the Carol Tambor Theatre Trust, agreed with McKee that truth was a fundamental component to the success of theatre.

“Truth is so vital, and we have less and less of it in our world. I think people look to the theatre as a place where you can find that truth.

“There is so much talk about writing things that are politically correct, making sure that there’s diversity, making it inclusive rather than an elitist art form. All of those things are important, but they shouldn’t pander to society’s current fascination without always sticking to what is true. And what is true to the playwright might not please everybody.

“The plays that really hit home are the ones where we know the author is telling us something that is real. When I’m moved at the theatre, I’m being shown a world I don’t know. The definition of theatre is really up to so many people who are making theatre. I think the theatre is alive and well, and I look forward to going every night.”

McKee concluded the fascinating evening’s insights on the topic of the ‘spectacle’ of the theatre – staging, lighting, sets, make up, audience involvement, or, as his metaphor so aptly puts it, ‘juggling’.

“What’s the easy work? Juggling. Anybody can get up on the stage and learn to juggle and entertain. Juggling is not hard work. Drama, great comedy, great tragedy – that’s hard work.

“And I know, when people are confronted with the really hard work of expressing human nature in a powerful way, they’d rather juggle.”

Earlier this year, Regent's launched the Robert McKee International Screenwriting Scholarship in partnership with McKee, beginning with the 2018/19 academic year.

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