Monday, October 13, 2008

The Defense of Escapism

Where do I live? Underneath a blanket on my living room couch? Inside my head? On my computer screen?

Where do I live when I am creating theatre? Locked up in black boxes and Vectorworks files? Between the loose pages of a flimsy script?

Where do I live when I'm going to see theatre? In one of the two nice dresses I own? Upon a creaky, uncomfortable second-row seat? Or is it somewhere else…?

Escapism, especially in our entertainment-driven nation, invokes the image of a lethargic man, whom, in stubborn refusal to accept his own reality, pours himself into a fantasy. He buys People magazine, plays World of Warcraft, loops the RENT soundtrack on his ipod, and can beat everyone at Friends trivia…even though he has no real friends of his own to challenge.

As an admitted (and defensive) escapist, I look to the Random House Unabridged Dictionary to clear my name with the true definition:

Escapism: (n) the avoidance of reality by absorption of the mind in entertainment or in an imaginative situation, activity, etc.

Wait, wait. That’s wrong. I meant to use the American Heritage Dictionary:

Escapism: (n) The tendency to escape from daily reality or routine by indulging in daydreaming, fantasy, or entertainment.

That’s not quite it, either. Wordnet?

Escapism: (n) an inclination to retreat from unpleasant realities through diversion or fantasy; "romantic novels were her escape from the stress of daily life"; "his alcohol problem was a form of escapism"

Ok, ok, so the master narratives are making a fool out of me. But if escapism is romance novels and alcoholism, then I am sad to say that the most popular forms of theatre today perpetuate this stereotype. Broadway’s movie-musicals have provided us with redundant Utopian societies, where conflict is light and endings are joyous. Patrons are paying record breaking prices to sit in a cramped seat, turn off their brains, and consume a budgetless spectacle. I agree with those who fill the Broadway houses that escapism is valuable, even necessary, to maintain our sanity with the pace and pressure of our American lifestyles. But we are using it incorrectly. Escapism should not be an unhealthy obsession, it should be a tool that motivates and inspires those who experience it. Yes, escapism should temporarily remove us from this reality, but it should not throw us back empty-handed.

My personal definition of escapism is more idealistic than the widely accepted ones. I have felt the sensation of being summoned back to reality by the gradual illumination of the house lights after a performance. But where am I coming back from? My consciousness is too nosy to allow me to truly suspend my disbelief. Even when all the elements of a production are just right, I have never actually forgotten I was watching a play. For me, a successful escape is when I am invested in the characters and the world that is being presented and I have a definite, emotional interest in watching the piece unravel. When this happens, my creativity is stirred; afterwards, I dwell on the dramatic action and discuss it with others. Of course, you dictionary composers of the world, my physically being in the theatre allows me to temporarily escape from, oh, let’s say, the dirty dishes in my sink. But if I let myself escape even further, from my seat in the theatre and into the play itself, I am able to return to the dishes later that evening with something new to contemplate while I wash them.

Brecht proposed a solution to the theatre’s habit of producing mindless entertainment. By emotionally distancing the audience from the piece and insisting his actors have no emotional connection to his characters, he hoped to control the awareness of the viewers so that they would absorb the play actively, which, he believed, would spark discussion and lead to social and political change. In his Epic Theatre, he believed that the “spectator stands outside” studying the action, wherein conventional dramatic theatre, the “spectator is in the thick of it,” and “shares the experience[1]” Brecht preferred that a member of his audience feel as if they were in a classroom rather than a theatre. While today’s productions are guilty of removing the theatre’s fundamental purpose of instruction, Brecht wanted to remove the fundamental purpose of entertainment in its simplest definition: anything a play can offer that captivates its audience. I disagree with this solution, maintaining that escape (at least by my definition) is intrinsic to the theatre and is necessary for an audience to indulge in if the play is to affect them at all. The answer is not to eliminate escape, but to use the emotional investment that it generates as a way to communicate with the audience. Emotion inspires action.

I consider myself quite grounded in reality despite my devotion to the Harry Potter book series, thank-you-very-much. The need to escape is innate in my soul, but so is the need to create, progress, and change. Theatre has the capability of spring-boarding progress. It can raise questions and suggest answers. It is eternally searching to diagnose, treat and cure the ailments of our society. Yet its approach is paradoxical, pulling us into anti-reality in order to make a statement about true reality. Somehow, we are able see our world more clearly after we've been allowed to glimpse into another. In America, especially with the presidential election at hand, we are all dying for progression. For insight and direction, I, among many others, trustingly turn myself over to the theatre, the proverbial mirror of our society. But if we are considering escapism as a rally for inspiration, I am convinced that our society today is more complex than Shrek: the Musical. We are in need of a type of escapism that is enlightening and motivational.

Personally, I tend to gravitate towards plays which present realities filthier, more tragic and dramatic, but just as detailed and complete as our own. Whether they are absurdist (Beckett’s Endgame), expressionistic (Torben Betts’ Unconquered), or conceptually realistic (Alan Bowne’s Beirut), these plays offer us a standard 1984-esque warning. Although they transcend genre, all of these dramas provide us a glimpse at a prospective future, which is why I refer to them as Portent Plays. Essentially, these pieces cry out for a drastic change before it's too late. Can these fantastically terrifying works lend themselves to escapism? After all, the term escape suggests going to a better place, not a worse one. Yet as an audience member, we are still being asked to accept the world that is being presented, even if it is just “different” as opposed to “better.” Once we’re able to immerse ourselves in this world, we are no longer distracted by the divergences and we’re left to pick out the similarities between it and ours. How far are we from a society which gruesomely brands the bodies of abortionists with the letter “A,” as in the one presented by Suzan-Lori Parks in Fucking A? That is arguable, but there is no question that women's rights is a touchy subject in our society, with the recent government proposal that would brand contraceptives as abortion. There is one similarity that all these plays share, no matter how bizarre the alternate society is: we are still watching human beings live and die, get raped and abused: be affected. This allows us to make the emotional leap and relate to the characters despite the lack of verisimilitude. The mere fact that these fictional places are conceived and produced by real people as a result of true life experiences is startling. Projecting a society that is worse or scarier than ours also gives us the ability to be thankful for the positive elements of our lives as we walk out of the theatre and back on to the street, as opposed to leaving the Winter Garden wishing our lives contained more spontaneous song and dance routines. Perhaps the Portent Plays have the greatest potential for political and social impact because we are able to escape from them back into our own safer, more concrete reality while simultaneously using them to acknowledge that problems such as sexism, racism, nuclear war, and disease exist all around us and pose a very real threat.

I am uncertain of exactly where I am when I am watching a play. If it is a bad play, I may be dwelling on those dirty dishes in my sink. If it is a mediocre play, I may be in seat F18. But if it is a truthful play, I am somewhere else: somewhere between my physical self and the action, somewhere in the air of the theatre, floating among the spoken words, the audience’s reactions, and the beams of colored light. Theatre is not as readily accessible as television and film. It is temporary and expensive. Therefore, it is more important that we leave the mindless entertainment to other media and use theatre as a medium with which we can indulge in our need to escape in a way that is beneficial as opposed to desensitizing. I would like to revisit this topic at some point. I think it is relevant to examine the elements of escapism in other areas of theatre, such as realism and even performance art. Unfortunately, there is a sink full of dishes calling my name.

[1] Theatre/Theory/Theatre, Edited by Daniel Gerould


Anonymous said...

i disagree with your personal definition of escapism. I don't think that what you experience is truly escapism. Escapism is mindless. what you're talking about is an almost intimate connection between audience and story ... far from the mindless indulgence of escapism.

When i sit at home and watch 6 episodes of NCIS or House on USA, that's escapism ... I'm not thinking about it, i'm simply enjoying for the sake of enjoyment and procrastination from whatever i should be doing and/or thinking about.

But when I watch a play and engross myself in it, find meaning, connect emotionally, that is far from escapism. I'm not sure what the word I would use is, other than maybe engagement.

Anonymous said...

this is hochman btw

Kaitlyn said...

Thank you, Hochman, you're absolutely right. In my argument, I failed to accept the fact that there is an intrinsic negativity in the word "escapsim." I guess I just wanted to differentiate between fantasy that is mindless entertainment, and fantasy that is a little bit deeper. I believe that a lot of mainstream, popular theatre is escapist, mindless entertainment. When I talk about my attraction to less popular works, such as fantastical portent plays, it can be wrongly construed as escapism because they portray other realities. Tolkien's work was accused of being a form of escapism because it invited the reader into an entirely different world. Yet even with Tolkien, there are fans who enjoy the beauty of his novels and the subsequent works of art the novels inspired, and those fans who watch the movies continuously and speak fluent Elvish.

"Engagement" is definitely closer than the traditional idea of escapism, but I feel like the sensation I am speaking of is still undefined...I am curious if you (or any other readers!) have ever felt like you've "escaped," in a positive way, while watching a play?

Anonymous said...

Very interesting post. And before I say anything else, I think I am an escapist of the highest order.

Now here is what I think. First of all, I have always failed to understand the inherent negative connotation attached with the word 'escapism'. I take offense in being branded as 'the coward who doesn't want to "face" life'. At times it takes the heart of a lion to let go of things in real life and immerse yourself in nothingness.

Now to the definition, escapism for me is the way to escape reality when it starts overwhelming me. I wouldn't use the word mindless but yes it usually involves surrendering your sensibilities to outrageous fantasies in an attempt to erase the more relevant thoughts that might be pertinent in your current context.

Anonymous said...

But, it doesn’t end here, not even if you try. True escapists largely fail to realize when to severe the connection with their fantasies and cut short the “escape”. Or more correctly, as in my case, the fantasy world has so much to offer me, in terms of intellectual simulation, sheer pleasure and at times even emotional satisfaction that it makes so much more sense to defer the return to ‘real world’ monotony. And this is where the ‘engagement’ comes in.

Now, as far as my opinion is concerned, what you are feeling Kaitlyn has got nothing to do with escapism. It is pure and simple appreciation for an art-form, in this case theatre play. The difference I feel lies in the fact that an escapist’s escape has to be designed and created in his mind or otherwise largely by his own efforts. His involvement has to be much more than just “being engrossed in a play.”