In Theater, Can We Preserve the Ephemeral?

At the globe with my parents
At he globe with my parents
At the Globe with my parents

It’s 28 miles to until we arrive in Devon. I’m sitting in the car, watching the countryside go from Jane Austen to Wuthering Heights in a matter of moments, thanks to the fickle British summer. Today I saw the ancient enigmatic rocks of Stonehenge, yesterday a church from the 11th century devastated by a fire in 1940, the day before a performance of As You Like It at Shakespeare’s Globe. The British know how to preserve their culture.

While U.K. building protection laws were put in place in the late 1800s, the enthusiastic vigor of the National Trust did not begin until after World War II, where many of Britain’s prized buildings were lost during air raids and bombing campaigns. Urgency toward preservation guided the restoration of London, and its history became one of Great Britain’s most valued assets. But how does one preserve and protect the ephemeral art form of theatre?

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Although the reconstruction of Shakespeare’s Globe on London’s South Bank was driven by an American actor, Sam Wanamaker, who passed in 1993, its existence is a good attempt to capture the theatrical experience of the Bard as a building. The structure itself is the Globe’s third incarnation, just one street away from where the original site burned down. Other than small changes to meet safety precautions, the building is a faithful reconstruction of the original, a product of tenacious research complete with green oak lumber and a thatched roof. The sights and sounds of the performance were also conserved — the costumes, the stagecraft, the musicians and their instruments.

As You Like It was interesting and beautiful but could easily have become a museum piece were it not for one thing: the actors, and director Blanche McIntyre, acknowledged that this was a Shakespeare performance taking place in a contemporary time. There were subtle gestures, moments that nodded to the influence of the present. Memorable instances included Jaques delivering the notorious words “all the world’s a stage” with an awareness that these lines had been said so many times since the cusp of the 17th century; the friar wheeling on a shopping cart to become his altar, and producing a gold crucifix to facilitate the hasty marriage of Audrey and Touchstone; the subversive choice for Rosalind, during her epilogue, to strip off her skirt, revealing feminine legs in Elizabethan breeches.

With these choices came the understanding that theatre, by its very nature, is a dying art form that does not remain dead: it is born again with every performance and every line. And due to this, it is not that everything in theatre must be preserved, but instead protected.

Now to a different continent and era: Chicago, 2015. There are a number of theatres that strive to do the what the Globe does: to produce works from the past but engage with the present. I wonder how, in 500 years time, these theatres will have the ability to preserve their work. Just how will our work be remembered? Will it even be possible for our work to be preserved?

Unlike Shakespeare’s Globe, much of Chicago’s storefront theatre is itinerant. We have but few buildings to cement our place in the world and to shape the memories people hold of us. If Chicago storefront theatre is ever-changing, so is the very nature of the world in which we live. What was once on my social media feed is gone in minutes. The value placed on theatre is often seen as secondary to the value placed on celebrity. As the CFR’s Sean Douglass wrote in his last article, people struggle to name even one living playwright. Would the Londoners of Shakespeare’s time have done the same?

Many innovative ideas and works by Chicago theatre artists cannot be adequately recorded with words — and so how, and with which tools, will we remember them? We do have organizations such as The Chicago Film Archive of Performance, which includes this as part of its mission:

With a goal of documentation and preservation, archived films provide an educational and artistic resource for the Chicago community and theatrical history.

Perhaps that’s not so bad. Perhaps it’s OK for theatre to live inside us and not a building. Right?