Today I began re-reading Maurice Kurtz’s biography of Jacques Copeau. Within seven pages I was reminded of why Copeau is such a hero to me. He dedicated his life to a theatre of integrity, and he forged numerous paths in an effort to materialize his ideal. As a critic, and a critic of the critics, he insisted fiercely upon theatre production that put human interests above commercial ones. Not that money wasn’t important. His family’s intimate relationship to labor taught him the value of a centime. Yet Copeau remained steadfast in his conviction that financial reward should be a happy accident of, rather than the motivation behind, the production of good and purposeful art. He edited the writing of others with the same vivacity and honest care that he applied to his own work. He opened Le Theatre du Vieux-Colombier as an article of faith in the power of theatre to transfix attention and transform lives. Finally, he retreated to rural France with a group of teachers and actors to imagine a form of performance that would be both new and old at once. Each of these endeavors reverberated in its own particular circle of society and art, such that no area in which Copeau’s brave attention lingered would ever again be the same. As Albert Camus remarked, “In the history of the French theater, there are two periods: before Copeau and after Copeau.” His legacy beyond France is deep and broad. Yet in his own time, Copeau’s achievements were perceived as mediocre at best. He remained undaunted. His heart beat with a level of courage that doubt typically erodes in most of us.
Is it already too late for theatre’s authentic investigations when it becomes about box office returns? Is artistic innovation stymied or propelled by financial gain? Can we satisfy patrons hungry for value at the same time that we feed those who need their souls nourished? And what about what the performing artist needs from the transaction? Is it possible to entertain and feel personally fulfilled at once? These are basic questions, though the contradictions inherent in answering them imbue them with the power of mystery. Maybe it’s as simple as: what is most important? And, eminently more complex, can you live with the consequences of making that choice, whatever they may be? Boldly open a restaurant to cook for others, but accept that you may go hungry yourself sometimes. Plant rows of grape vines, and be ready to live through the rainy season in a tent until their fruit is ripe enough to press into wine for all. Greet strangers with an open heart, and know that many of them will rebuff your attempt. For goodness sake, dance in the streets and let them all laugh with you. Some will certainly join your reveling. Is there enough goodwill in the world to support such personal and public adventures? Copeau knew that there always would be.
What might poets offer dancers? How could a storyteller illuminate a musician’s composition? What does a performance artist have to say in response to a filmmaker’s experiment? And what does the public have to say about any of these practices?
Let’s bring these and folks of all artistic persuasions together and find out. An occasional event. An eclectic evening. A cabaret? If you have something ready to risk, let the collective know about it. The range of offerings will dictate the shape of each exploit. A senate (or some subjective group making more or less arbitrary decisions) will construct the line-up. There will be channels for feedback – yet to be determined. Not much has been figured out. So what? Start getting ready.
This is not about generating mass appeal, though that may be an accidental outcome. It’s not about gleaning compliments from an insular community. And please, dear god, don’t let anybody use the word ‘fusion’ to describe any part of an intention. It may, however, have something to do with physical lines of force. It might delve into the way phrases lurk and palettes rumble into our memories. Laughter and mystery may preside over one ceremony; grief may rule the next. Maybe this thing will just help artists do better with what they are already trying to do. Sometimes it will likely set us productively against one another. So be it.
Devise. Divert. Dare.