Fires and the Road

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I won’t be on the road with the Transient Theater this summer, but I think they might be doing the most important work in the country right now, laying down something we can all use in the years ahead. And I’m honored to serve as their Ambassador-at-Large or whatever Grand Poobah title we agreed on and here’s why:

I’ve got a fireplace in this little cabin we have out in the Poconos. And whenever I can convince my wife that it’s cold enough, (doesn’t matter if it’s in the middle of summer, we’re in what passes for “mountain country” around here, so it can get cool even in July) I build a fire and sit in front of it and stare, tossing in logs like a madman.

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Transient Theater

It was during one of these self-induced pyro-hypnotic states a couple of years ago that I realized a great loss, for me and for all of us, for our species; a loss we don’t even recognize, one we don’t even know has lessened us.

Ever since we were us, we’ve stared into the fire, alone and shivering or together and feasting; fire and language (and also the ability and willingness to pick up a stick and smack the shit out of that other guy) are some of the very basic things that make us us. When you watch a fire you’ve built, you watch a living thing dance in front of you, you watch it feed and lick the wood, you watch it collapse, die, roar back up to life. You can see a show you’re working on, a project you’re about to begin, a political campaign, just about anything. You can see civilizations rise and sputter if you look, not close enough, but without any hard focus.

You can learn a lot staring into a fire.

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In much the same way, the modern theater artist has lost something important she doesn’t even know she used to need.

Up until quite recently, theater was a mobile enterprise. You couldn’t just sit around the same town square doing the same damned show day after day. People would start throwing things at you or worse. So the jongleurs, the bouffons, the jugglers and troupes would be on the road every morning, literally walking down some road that snaked or crawled between two towns, rehearsing new bits, congratulating each other on yesterday’s performance all the while keeping an eye out for highwaymen or worse, the Law.

This isn’t some romantic hokum, this is how it used to be and how it always was up until the moment patronage got involved in Western theater. And even then, after some duke had built you a theater or more often just granted you the right to perform in his banquet room, you still made your money out on the road.

And just like the old simplicity of staring into a fire, you can learn a lot being out on the road.

Most important to the craft, the show gets better, stronger, leaner and sharper. Forced to adjust the performance to different playing areas, the players are much more aware of the physical reality of the performance each time, they are paying more attention to the crowd and each other than they will when they are comfortable and taking the space for granted. Different playing areas keep the show alive and electric in a way that it is impossible to replicate in a fixed location.

Transient Theater 2The other thing the road clarifies is the implicit agreement and relationship between the player and the town, which is a way of saying the contract between the artist and society.

On the road, you’re a stranger, again, a visitor bringing something new to the place. You’re back in the Marketplace, out of the dreaded, deadening Temple of Art, that place where parishioners nap and you dutifully recite the words, hoping to connect again with the Old Magic. You’re in the rough and rolling world again, peddling your wares. And yes, your wares may be made of dreams and sweat and spit and magic, but the relationship is the ancient, universally understood transaction: give me your time and your coin and I’ll make it worth your while. And to take the time and coins of strangers and have them applaud and smile at the end is the only reward any player, ever, is really looking for.

And having spent some time on the road, I can tell you that the best thing about it is the hilarious, very adolescent feeling you have of Getting Away with Something. You’re traveling around, dropping into a place, doing your show for strangers, gone the next day, off to the next place. When you tell a shopkeeper or a hotel clerk or someone at the bus stop what you’re doing:

“We’ve got a show, we’re on tour, we’re playing tonight down at the…”

they invariably nod, impressed, interested, like you’re some kind of exotic animal, like you’re the Rolling Stones. They’ve never heard of you, they’re not coming to the show, you’ll never see them again, but in that moment you get this completely unearned but absolutely genuine respect from another human.

And all because you were crazy enough to go out on the road.

Simple things, fires and the road. But it’s concentrating on and appreciating the very simple things that keeps you honest and focused on what’s important.

I won’t be on the road with the Transient Theater crew, not this time anyway. I’ll be home staring into a fire, even if it’s the dog days of August, but I’m very excited about the experiment and I can’t wait to greet them in New York.

  • Thanks for spreading the word, John! We’re looking forward to our second tour this summer. If anybody out there wants to follow our adventures (or vote for their city), join our email list here: http://bit.ly/VAnkEB