Live theatre as co-creation: how to produce a 2.9 kiloton explosion on stage

At a panel discussion at The Grand Theatre on Thursday, playwright Trina Davies said that the distinctive difference between theatre and film is that the experience of a live performance is co-created with the audience. At the movies, the actors don’t know you are there. There is no relationship whatsoever. In theatre, the experience is produced together. A production without an audience does not ‘produce’ an analogue experience to what happens in an auditorium full of humans.

Davies described the difficulty of writing Shatter, a play set in the aftermath of the Halifax explosion of 1917 — the largest human-produced explosion before Hiroshima that killed 2,000 people. How can you reproduce the sense of a blast of this magnitude on a stage? You can’t do it physically. It defies even the biggest special effects budget (unless, I suppose, you have an extra half-mile radius of city blocks to incinerate at each show). The ‘experience’ of what the explosion looked, felt, and sounded like could only be recreated through the words and actions of her characters. The audience could only ‘feel’ the size and devastation of the disaster in their minds, not their eyes.

With CGI, of course, you could visualize a 2.9 kiloton explosion convincingly. (But it’s only one vision, and it probably belongs to the executive producer.) The profundity of live theatre lies in this act of joint imaginative production — a kind of collective make-believe. We’re not convinced of the explosion by the clever arrangement of pixels on a screen — or because we somehow forgot about the curtains — but because we empathize with characters in a narrative. This participatory group empathy session yields something that is more ‘real’ than even the most convincing special effects on a one-dimensional screen. This is why live theatre can never be supplanted by Netflix.

Dennis Garnhum — who I recently interviewed about the connection between theatre and civics — was also on the panel. He observed that producer Cameron Mackintosh’s visions for plays like Cats (1981) and Les Misérables (1985) mark the beginning of a trend towards evermore elaborate staging expectations. But with the demand for greater effects comes the demand for bigger budgets, which subsequently drives the cost of experiencing theatre into a distinctive and exclusive socioeconomic class of its own. (One of Garnhum’s initiatives is recalibrating the cost and accessibility of live theatre for high school students.)

Listening to the panel, a few things ‘clicked’ for me. I have always loved the ‘flesh and blood’ dimension of theatre. In an entertainment landscape dominated by prefabricated, play-on-demand experience, a live stage is a place of attention tuning: at this time, in this place, we will ‘story’ with one another. Here the actor is a human, without digital enhancement. What I wasn’t able to articulate before was the co-creative dimension of the experience. In a way, going to the theatre is like reading a book: the explosion is only ‘real’ to the extent it exists in the imagination of the reader. But in the imagination, the explosion goes far beyond the mere words on the page. So too in theatre: the experience of the explosion goes far beyond the raw mechanics of the set design, costumes, and script. I am beginning to think of live theatre as a kind of ‘mass reading’ of a text — it is like having a book read to you along with an auditorium full of people imagining and feeling the scene together.

Eventually, we might get tired of watching pretend explosions on three-story screens. We might discover that being in the same physical room as imperfect, dynamic, adaptive storytellers makes for a richer experience than watching the carbon copy reruns of the ‘perfect takes’ spliced together.

Imagining the explosion is more impactful than seeing it.

The City and the Stage: Civics and Theatre

“I see theatre company leadership as civic leadership,” said Dennis Garnhum, shortly upon returning to London to become the Artistic Director at the Grand Theatre. The 2017/18 season, Garnhum’s first playbill the Grand, not only includes a full lineup of main stage productions, but also an initiative to bring professional theatre to 100 schools in London.

As a community, why is it important to support live theatre? Why do we need to make productions more accessible, inclusive, and diverse? What will stage performance look like in another generation? How will theatre continue to adapt and evolve to remain sustainable in an everchanging economic landscape? Come join Dennis Garnhum and James Shelley for a conversation about the intersection of art, theatre, and civic society.

After 11 seasons at Theatre Calgary, Dennis Garnhum (@grandgarnhum) moved back to his hometown of London in October 2016 to become the Artistic Director at the Grand Theatre. Dennis directed nearly 20 productions at Theatre Calgary, as well as productions at Vancouver Opera, National Arts Centre, Shaw Festival, Stratford Festival, Tarragon Theatre, Manitoba Theatre Centre, Bard on the Beach, Pacific Opera Victoria, Belfry Theatre, Neptune Theatre, and Theatre New Brunswick.


Many years ago I worked with a man named Henry. He sat on the board of my employer at the time. Henry was not a talkative person. In fact, he said little during board meetings. But when he did speak, his words were profound and insightful. Behind Henry’s silence was an incredibly sharp intellect and perceptive mind. But Henry never spoke unless he had something constructive to contribute, and his words always seemed to bring forward ideas and perspectives that profoundly shaped the decision-making process at hand.

Henry’s silence was not disengagement. Quite the opposite, instead of talking, he was thinking. He was an internal processor par excellence.

Unsurprisingly, Henry’s opinion was in high demand around the boardroom table. Other committee members would often ask him for input, but his response would sometimes amount to, “I have nothing to say about this issue yet.” Henry did not talk for the sake of talking. He did not speak for the sake of just getting his two cents in the equation. He had clearly self-determined the criteria for thoughts that warranted verbalization higher than the rest of us — at least those of us whose ‘contributions’ to meetings often amounted to rambling paraphrases of one another.

Fast-forward to the present. Today I still talk far too much in meetings. But my memories of Henry remind me that when it comes to speech, quality is far more important than quantity.

Your silence will be more effective than idle chatter.
Speak (only) when you have thought of a solution,
for it is (only) the skilled who should speak in council.
Speaking is more difficult than all other tasks:
he who does it fluently makes it his servant.
(Teaching of Ptahhotep, trans. Wilkinson 2016:266)

In hindsight, what made Henry’s rare and short exhortations so valuable was the fact he was a spectacular listener. It was as if he invested the majority of his mental energy in absorbing, critiquing, and synthesizing the input of others. He weighed and measured what he heard, instead of responding and reacting to it on the fly. He didn’t improvise paragraphs. He did not need to be heard; he needed to hear. He did not need to get a word in edgewise because he knew that the room would eventually ask (perhaps even beg) for his perspective.

That’s the paradoxical thing about great listeners: we can’t wait to hear what they have to say.

If what is heard enters the hearer,
the hearer becomes a listener.
He who listens well speaks well.
The listener reaps the benefits —
listening benefits the listener —
for listening is better than anything else;
it creates goodwill.
(Teaching of Ptahhotep, trans. Wilkinson 2016:272)

I must confess that I’m a terrible listener. I suffer from the indomitable curse of being more concerned with having a coherent, fast-and-ready response than internalizing the words of my interlocutor. Unlike Henry, I’m afraid of silence; I’m afraid of not having something to say. To the extent that this fear and insecurity impedes my ability to listen, it impedes my ability to learn. And the less I learn, the less I have to contribute to the conversation.

Valuable words are born in the silence.

The Myth of Why We Work

The Atrahasis is the famous Mesopotamian story of a great flood and a man who survived with his family in a boat full of animals.

Early on, the myth recounts the creation of humankind. It turns out that there was a great civil war among the gods, for legions of the less powerful gods were forced to do hard labor. The subservient gods rebelled.

To put an end to the conflict, the god Ea comes up with a brilliant solution:

‘Belen-Ili the womb-goddess is present,
Let the womb-goodness create offspring,
And let man bear the load of the gods! …
Create man, that he may bear the yoke!
Let him bear the load of the gods!
(Atrahasis Tablet I, trans Dalley 2008[1989]:15)

Yes: humans were created for the specific task of doing all the manual labor that the gods didn’t want to be bothered with.

The purpose of humanity’s creation is similar in the Babylonian Epic of Creation. Here, again, humanity is fashioned by the god Ea (this time, assisted in no small part by the god Marduk) to ease the demands of hard labor on the gods:

Let me put blood together, and make bones too. 
Let me setup primeval man: Man shall be his name.
Let me make a primeval man.
The work of the gods shall be imposed on him, and so they shall be at leisure.
Let me change the ways of the gods miraculously.
(Epic of Creation Tablet VI, Ibid 260-1)

When Ea the wise had created mankind,
Had imposed the toil of the gods on them…
He imposed the work of the gods on them so that they might rest. (Ibid 261, 265)

Interestingly, there is also something of a parallel undertone in the second version of the creation story told in Genesis:

Yahweh took the man, and put him into the garden of Eden to cultivate and keep it. (Genesis 2:15, World English Bible)

And it is also interesting to note how aristocratic Egyptians were often buried with an ushabti; a small idol or figurine that was intended to do manual labor in the afterlife on behalf of the deceased, just in case the gods might summon the poor departed spirit to work the land:

If I am summoned or if I am assessed to do any work which has to be done in the afterlife… every time the fields are to be fertilized, the banks irrigated, or sand ferried from east to west… (Egyptian Book of the Dead, Ch. 6, trans. Wilkinson 2016:168)

Today, it seems, we mostly believe the same myth. We’ve only secularized it slightly by eliminating the deities from the narrative. We seem no less convinced than the ancients that our principle reason for existing is to work. We organize many of our societies around this principle revelation. In a sense, the mythology is still alive and well.