Volatility. If there’s one word to sum up the times we’re living in, that would have to be it. In the interviews posted in this new issue of Critical Stages, the featured artists usually aver that stillness is illusory. The most carefully laid-out path can suddenly shift and change overnight. Even when you have very little to begin with, a force can come along—a financial crisis, say, or a missed opportunity or a critical misstep—and take it all away. Every artist, as Beckett famously stated, must come to accept the burden of failure weighing them down.
It can weigh down an artist’s work, too. The memory of a lived moment may not linger in the mind clearly enough to be re-captured. A particular event that becomes a social or political lightning rod of sorts may be too huge to reproduce or too fast moving to pin down. The world is a mobile object, always changing and transforming while simultaneously being propelled through time and space.
Reality’s inconstancy makes Robert Wilson’s view of the artist’s function both naive and axiomatic. “Artists are recording our times, and the artists are the diaries of our times,” the American director once said in a public conversation at the Opera Bastille in Paris. “In the future, this is what society will look back on as a record of our time, what artists are saying.” In this sense, artists engage in creative interplay. Yes, they pay witness to what they see, hear, experience and grasp. Yes, they gather facts, documents, photographs, transcripts, materials and stories after a period of intense research and exploration. Yes, artists hold up a mirror to the world—just as surely as they view it through a lens. Artists re-present the world. Just as surely as they reflect it, they refract it through the lens of their subjectivity. The politics of difference, the nature of identity, the practice of tolerance, the reality of acceptance, the curve of ideologies prevailing in a culture—these are some of the discourses and convictions that artists, especially theatre artists, bring into greater, sharper focus through their work. This is not just a matter of artists being in constant conversation with reality. Seen in this wider context, theatre artists, with their bravura skills, are more constitutionally equipped to become “citizen theatre-makers” than traditionalists may be willing to admit.