NNPN Panel: WE’VE BEEN HERE BEFORE: THEATER & CRISIS

nnpn edwin wong risk theatre

A whirlwind has carried me from morning to evening. Earlier today, I took part in a panel at the National New Play Network AGM. With the Great Quarantine locking everything down, the NNPN took their AGM online, hosting it on the Zoom platform. The focus of the AGM was the question on everyone’s minds: “How can theaters become essential to their communities?”  The panel I was on was called “We’ve Been Here Before: Theater & Crisis.”

Jess Hutchinson at NNPN organized the panel. I was joined by dramaturgs and theatre researchers Carrie Kaplan, Sally Ollove, and Tanya Palmer. Maestro Julie Felise Dubiner moderating. The over 300 registrants restored my confidence in the future of theatre. For 90 minutes, we laid out our visions of tomorrow’s theatre.

Now this whole Zoom format is interesting. All the panelists and the moderator can see one another on the main Zoom box. Then there is a Q&A box that fills up with attendees’ questions. Pop, pop, pop, up they come in real time. If that’s not enough, there’s also a separate chatbox buzzing with a hundred comments from all the attendees. Some saying hello to one another. Others commenting on the panelists’ conversation. Some sharing interesting footnotes.

Ever wonder what it’s like to be inside a JS Bach Invention in six parts? Each voice in the Q&A box, in the chatbox, and the panelists’ voices sung out like a musical line in theatre’s eternal song. The name of our panel was called: “We’ve Been Here Before.” I can’t help but to think that this panel has happened before–with different panelists–in the past. And I can’t help but to think that this panel, sometime in the distant future, will convene again with different panelists. To have participated in the conversation for 90 minutes is such a trill, or, I mean thrill.

Here were my introductory comments at the panel:

My name is Edwin Wong and here’s my background. I approach theatre from the perspective of a classicist. In the ancient days, they too had this moment of pandemic. In 430 BC, a plague struck Athens, wiping out a third of its population. But the playwright Sophocles confronted the situation head-on with his plague play in 429 BC, Oedipus the King. He was not afraid to challenge the Athenians’ beliefs. Theatre today can also rise to such heights if we are courageous. Laurel Bowman at the University of Victoria and David Konstan at Brown University taught me ancient Greek drama. My specialty is the theory of tragedy.

These days, I’ve set up an annual playwriting contest with Langham Court Theatre in Victoria, Canada. The Risk Theatre Playwriting Competition is the world’s largest contest for the writing of tragedy. Last year’s winning play was In Bloom by Brooklyn playwright Gabriel Jason Dean. Through the competition, Langham Court offers the community a forum to explore the role of chance and the unexpected in theatre and in life. We fly in the winner for a workshop and staged reading. Langham Court is an essential part of our community because of the personal connections the competition fosters within our city of 370,000 and with playwrights around the world. I’m honoured to be working with competition manager Michael Armstrong, Langham GM Michelle Buck, and board member Keith Digby on this unique project.

The contest is based on my award-winning book on theory: The Risk Theatre Model of Tragedy. Risk theatre is tragedy reimagined as a theatre of risk. It’s risk, and not catharsis or a collision that drives the action. Because we’re surrounded by the impact of the highly improbable, the competition invites playwrights to write plays that dramatize unintended consequences and the impact of low-probability, high-consequence events. Audiences today clamour to learn more about the impact of risk. The theatre is a perfect stage to simulate risk. When theatres produce new plays based on modern theories of drama, theatres connect powerfully with community. To remember the past, we continue the conversation with the past by writing new theories and new plays.

But you say: “Who wants tragedy?—enough of tragedy, we cannot think of tragedy while living through it.” This sentiment is straight from Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, a story of fellow travelers exchanging stories. Whenever one of the travelers tells a tragedy, the rest of them put a stop to it. They say: “This is too sad, we insist you stop immediately!” People write to me all the time saying: “Why do you have a tragedy competition during this crisis?” But what I also see is this: people who have heard about my theory of drama based on low-probability, high-consequence events are fascinated and want to learn more. Here’s a thought. If you market a play as a tragedy, you’ll be met with disdain. But if you market a play as an exploration of risk, audiences will clamour for more. To me, tragedy and risk theatre are synonymous, the same thing. All of drama is the dramatization of risk, that’s why we have two genres: comedy to dramatize upside risk and tragedy to dramatize downside risk. But it’s not the same to audiences. And this brings me to my last point: the theatres which are essential to their communities will find creative ways to pitch their shows to audiences to pique their curiosity.

Brutal though this process of creative destruction has been, it also offers the courageous an opportunity to reshape, refine, and reimagine the theatre of tomorrow.

Until next time, I’m Edwin Wong, and I’m doing Melpomene’s work.

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