A Unifying Accident: Theatre Education in Strange Times

One of the most exciting theatrical experiences is what the actor, Spalding Gray, called the “unifying accident.” In his solo show, Monster in a Box, Gray defined a unifying accident as a theatrical event so spectacular and unforeseen, “that it suddenly unites the audience and the cast together in the realization that they are all in this one moment together.” Because of the strangeness of the moment, “we all know that it will never be repeated in the same way again.”

A unifying accident is never intended and rarely pleasant. (By way of example, Gray offers his own experience when a young actor suddenly vomited during the Lincoln Center production of Our Town.) But it is always memorable.

For all their discord, such accidents often become the stuff of legend. Whether it’s the lead actress scooping up a phone from a front-row mid-scene, or that pesky wardrobe malfunction, audiences often recall most vividly the moments when it all went wrong and thrill to what happens next. This is, after all, what gives live performance its brio: the possibility that anything could happen and the anticipation of what will come next.

Of course, now the world is living through an “accident” of unprecedented scale, but while live performance is paused, some theatre companies and artists have never been more active.

For some, this is an entirely new event. (It’s been rather amusing to watch as critics previously dismissive of theatre on screens suddenly warm to it when it’s the only game in town.) But, of course, some of us have been working in this area for literally decades and amid all of the struggle and strife, there’s something really exciting in the current moment.

Both new performance techniques such as virtual reality and digital performance, and older forms such as radio drama and living-room performances that previously existed at the periphery of theatre are suddenly at the centre of global attention. Previously inaccessible shows are newly available (some for the first time), and local events with specific audiences and missions are able to reach wider audiences, bringing diverse stories and perspectives into deserved focus.

Here in Toronto, I’ve been following Factory Theatre‘s online projects and Soulpepper Theatre‘s Fresh Ink series (which, to be fair, has cost me a ton in the plays I’ve ordered from the playwrights featured there).  Companies across Canada are finding ways to bring performance to audiences at home, through radio, podcasts, or as in Theatre SKAM’s “Pop-Up Theatre: Home Delivery” performances at your door.

In addition to new work, the advocacy and labour of BIPOC artists and companies and allies, as evidenced in projects like Stratford’s “Black Like Me” and panels on the experiences of Indigenous theatre artists, have meant that as live performances move online, audiences do not hear the same voices. This moment is not about waiting to go back to how it was before, but as I wrote in an open letter to creative arts students, it’s about re-imagining what theatre and dance, and indeed all the arts, can become in the future.

Theatre is an ideal model for accident-prone times because it reminds us not only that anything can happen, but that even the most terrible and sometimes frightening moments create new spaces for what comes next. The show, after all, goes on.

That’s why it’s been so discouraging to see the dominant narratives emphasize loss and futility, and I see the effect this is having on students, who believe that their education and their very work is being impossibly compromised. But this assumes that there is truly only one way that the arts — including embodied and performing arts — can be taught. This has never been true and it’s not true now.

To take only one example from my own university:

In the Department of Theatre at York, we have commissioned playwrights to write original one-act plays for performance in an online environment as we work with emerging actors and designers to develop their theatrical skills and technique for the online environment. We see this as a critical part of their training for the future of theatre. “The Ashley Plays,” a cycle of original site-specific plays written by our 3rd and 4th year playwrights, will be staged virtually in October, and we have created a virtual Devised Theatre Rodeo for high school students that will bring together drama classes from across the GTA and beyond to hone their techniques in both devised and digital theatre. Live arts education does not stop when physical venues close. It evolves.

This is not to discount the real challenges that many performing artists are experiencing right now, nor to dismiss the long-standing and painful inequities and exclusions that have been part of both arts organizations and educational institutions for too long. But these conditions are precisely why we will wait for things to return to “normal” or simply try to replicate what was happening in the past. As we struggle through our current moment, we have the opportunity to experience not just the accident, but unity as well.

Now, then, is an unprecedented opportunity for meaningful, positive change in arts education. It will not be easy, but it is necessary and, indeed, long overdue. The lessons in this coming year will not be about teaching how to work in the ways we know, but in learning together what new forms of work can happen and how our processes can better serve everyone, artists and audiences alike. Education will not be a top-down exercise, but a collaborative and mutual exchange in which we are all learners. This is the lesson of the unifying accident: the realization that we are in a unique and strange moment together and that we can all shape what happens next.

Programs often talk about “state-of-the-art” in relation to professional arts training. Well, this is the state of the arts profession now. How we learn, adapt, and create today will shape the ways that professions in the arts and media emerge tomorrow. We cannot simply put our programs on hold but must adapt and adjust to the new opportunities.

The unifying accident onstage can be challenging, but it often comes to define the specific performance and can even shape the industry more broadly. After all, the familiar “break a leg” for theatrical good luck is an ironic tribute to one of the defining accidents in theatre history.

So, to all my theatre colleagues, students, and artistic fellow travellers of all sorts: Break a leg this year.

1 thought on “A Unifying Accident: Theatre Education in Strange Times

  1. Thank you Sarah for once again being a clarion clear call for action. Your enthusiasm and knowledge of the possibilities is a beacon in this time. Never doubt the passion,expertise and joy that has brought you this far. I will always be cheering from the sidelines.

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