Theater and Imagology: Crewmates

There’s a cliché response that independent producers give when interviewed about how they got into radio drama: “Oh, originally I wanted to make movies, but I didn’t have the money.” Listening to their work, it shows. The results make for painful listening. At best such work has the grace of a hunchback in a tuxedo. At its worst it sits in the ear like a parody of the entire art, not unlike Timothy West’s This Gun That I Have in My Right Hand is Loaded. Unaware that audio has its own strengths and unwilling to engage the medium deeply to discover those strengths, these producers just scribble down whatever is in their heads. And what is in their heads is, almost without exception, television and film.

It isn’t just radio, however, that suffers from this displacement of its intrinsic qualities by cinematic pretense. The theater suffers from it equally, and perhaps even more to its detriment. One need not look far to find the tell-tale signs of “montage creep” on Seattle’s stages. Short scenes. Lots of set changes. Non-linear flashbacks. Bravura lighting techniques. Wall-to-wall recorded music. Near-complete lack of sustained dramatic attention, whether based on the classical unities or anything else. And, too, a reduction of emotion to sentiment — individual feelings reduced to logographic displays — so typical of commercial cinema and television.

This influence of the visual recording arts enervates the theater. It has destroyed a multitude of plays that would otherwise be great drama. It supplants dramatic immediacy with technical devices and empty spectacle. Moreover, it empties the theater of all that makes it distinct, and at a time when theatergoing has already become a sixth-choice experience at best for most Seattleites, the theater can ill afford this.

And so I come to Sameer Arshad’s play Crewmates.

The play begins with a fallen human who is enlisted to become a guardian angel in order to atone for former evils before Yawm al-Qiyāmah. This newly appointed angel becomes a record keeper who tallies a ledger of deeds for the human to which the angel has been assigned, compiling a sort of naughty or nice list of accomplishments to which Allah refers on Yawm al-Qiyāmah to decide the final fate of the human’s soul.

The milieu comes from Islamic folklore, but the basic story ought to be familiar to anyone who’s ever heard stories of angels getting their wings from other storytellers in the Abrahamic traditions. If I read it correctly the play is an argument concerning the plight of Muslims in a time of globalization and modernity, with particular regard for how to define properly the diverse relationships between men and women. While there are arguments within it for conservative rule-based practice, the play comes down clearly on the side of modernization. Not willy-nilly attempts to be modern because it’s hip, but rather legitimate considerations of why the rules are the rules, and a thoughtful questioning of whether or not (and when) certain rules actually apply.

There is a lot of charm in this play. The relationship between the two lead actors is complex and truthful, and both Ajinkya Bagul as Faraz and Carol Tagawa as Sarah give genuine, delightful performances. There is also a secondary story within the piece about the two oldest angels, played by Queenelle Gazmen and Simone Dawson, wishing to become human that plays as a crisp parody of the story of Harut and Marut, with a nod to Wings of Desire.

The problem with the play is the drama. Mx. Arshad wants, I think, to create a play in which the weight of history and tradition influences the present. However, the device Mx. Arshad uses to do so is not a theatrical device; it is a cinematic one, namely, the “flashback.” Throughout the evening the play is waylaid by its reliance on these flashbacks. Such flashbacks rarely work in theater. Indeed they rarely work even in film, where they are more natural to the medium. They serve in general only as convenient excuses for exposition and Crewmates is not in need of any more exposition than it already has.

The section of the play where there are multiple flashbacks in a row, courtesy of the memory ball, shows exactly how weak the flashback device is on the stage. It cripples the pace of the play, slowing it to a near-standstill, not merely by forcing the audience to wait for the actors physically to take position but also by sapping the actual, present-tense dramatic moments of revelation. It also robs the actors (and audience) of their agency. I grant that some of this is down to director Shahbaz Khan’s incomplete conception of the staging, and that a certain amount is purely architectural: the cast and crew are struggling against the fixed nature of Annex’s black box setup. But the dramatist has to share some of the blame for this misconception as well.

It isn’t my place to tell writers what plays they could have or should have written, and anyway I wouldn’t claim to know what’s in their heads. I can only respond to what’s in front of me. And so often over the past five years what’s been in front of me is similar to Mx. Arshad’s script here. Crewmates exists in a kind of purgatory between moving pictures and dramatic theater. But it’s hardly alone there. As I noted earlier one needn’t look too far for examples of montage creep and film rot. Even work by seasoned writers like Keri Healey and Scot Augustson have shown traces of it. Much of the work I’ve seen in development shows the same problems.

The question is: why?

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It’s all very hip to complain about the lack of ethnic diversity in American cinema and television these days. From #OscarsSoWhite to the Annenberg Report on Diversity in Entertainment, one can find numerous examples. But within those same examples, if one can be bothered to look deeply enough, one will find the ethnic proportions of TV and film by character are actually just about correct relative to the population (unless you’re Hispanic, then they are nowhere close). So what is the real complaint?

People often claim what they want is representation. I think this is not quite true. What people want are images. They want images of people who look like them, and, furthermore, they want those images to be subject to their approval and control. Milan Kundera once called this “imagology” and viewed it as the replacement for all the 20th Century ideologies that had failed. Imagology overcomes ideology by being even more glib, superficial, and ultimately vacuous, and for that reason more appealing. It doesn’t require intellect or commitment. All it requires is an obeisance to the phony. It works just so:

The imagologue bombards people with questions: how is the French economy prospering? is there racism in France? is racism good or bad? who is the greatest writer of all time? is Hungary in Europe or Polynesia? which world politician is the sexiest? And since for contemporary man reality is a continent visited less and less often and, besides, justifiably disliked, the findings of polls have become the truth. Public opinion polls are a parliament in permanent session, whose function is to create truth, the most democratic truth that has ever existed.

That phrase: the most democratic truth that has ever existed — this is the claim of so much discussion about “representation.” Since promoting that most democratic truth requires control over the images used, the gambit for an entry level representationalist is to claim that they are providing “more truthful representation” of the people, by the people, for the people. Never mind that these representations, like any other one chosen by any other human being, are necessarily selective. Each pocket imagologue that comes along will do her level best to convince you that her version is the one most comprehensive, most necessary, most democratic.

The natural soil for this imagology is photography. Photography does ideologues and imagologues a great favor by being morally neutral, without its own syntax, and maddeningly silent. It is therefore easy to use the exact same image for diametrically opposite purposes. Photographic images are simple to manipulate, and one needn’t even do so digitally: just add text, or music, or an unrelated picture in sequence, and voilà — instant meaning! Cinema and television being extensions of photography, the same rules apply. They are easy to manipulate, and prey easily upon the viewer’s credulity toward photographic “reality.”

It’s natural then for those who think they can change humanity through imagery to gravitate toward cinema and television. And indeed people watch thousands of hours of moving pictures before they are even teenagers. It is thus easy to speak to them in the language of spectacle. Through hundreds of spectacles, the argument goes, we can change people subliminally, by providing alternative visions of race, gender, religion, etc etc etc. And if we can’t afford to make a movie, then all we have to do is inject those same images into the other arts, and then, Pip, what larks!

I happen not to believe this argument. But even if I did, I do not believe it would ever be effective in the theater.

Theater does not create static images that can be transmitted across the nation or the globe, and therefore its “product,” so to speak, is not transferable. To experience theater you have to be there, wherever “there” is. That immediacy prevents things on stage from being taken out of context by being set to new music or tagged with new text labels — the standard tricks of photographic narrative. Furthermore, seeking representation is doomed to fail because the stage as such does not “represent” people. It presents, and only presents, in the present tense and never the same way twice. This lack of static identity prevents the kind of simplification of people that occurs in front of a camera, the kind of simplification on which imagology dotes. While it is comparatively straightforward for August Sander or Thomas Struth to do “typological” studies of German people in photography, and ethnographic film is most certainly a thing, the theater cannot provide those reductions of people into mere type. Thus it will always come up short when forced to act like a partisan in the imagology wars.

What the stage can do is much simpler, and much better. Instead of trying to show “images of multiculturalism,” whatever the hell that means, the theater can provide and examine relationships between real people in a delimited space. In this sense theater is not about images but rather about behavior, social and private. Theater does not provide grist-for-the-imagology-mill images. It provides models, and modeled behavior is far more powerful than absorbed imagery. Augusto Boal found this out when after one of his plays a group of peasants told him that the play had moved them to take back their land and handed him a rifle.

To do this, however, theater has to stop acting like the poor, demure country girl at the debutante ball, thinking that her louder, brasher city counterparts of cinema and television are so much better than her that all she can do is borrow from them. She has her own charms that are unequalled by any others, yet contemporary writers insist on taking parts from those around her and grafting them onto her until she resembles something out of Frankenhooker. This will not do.

Jerzy Grotowski has been dead almost twenty years now, and his influence on American theater — never particularly strong — has all but disappeared these days. But in Jerzy’s cry for a poor theater fifty years ago, he pointed out the crisis of contemporary performing arts: compete badly with film and tv, or return to the roots of performing art. Less well-known were Jerzy’s thoughts on the source of the crisis, namely, the disappearance of the sacred and the decline of religion. Jerzy’s solution to the crisis was to try creating a secular holiness based on confrontation with myth — a pure confrontation, the kind that leads one toward transfiguration.

I doubt Mx. Arshad is dedicated to this sort of holiness not only because of the differences in personality between Mx. Arshad and Jerzy, but also because of the differences in practice between Islam and Christianity. Where they do share an inclination toward the holy is in their penchant for blasphemy.

It’s no more accepted in Islam than in Christianity — they are both Abrahamic religions, after all — but blasphemy is essential to the sacred, just as surely as light needs darkness. Crewmates contains a good amount of profanation. Even daring to represent angels on a stage, or a complex male-female relationship that is not about marriage is profane to some (and not just Muslims). That profanation leads in the direction of truth. It compels a viewer to question certain tenets of religious practice without questioning religion itself.

I only wish it would go further. What the play lacks is not heart or head, but body. The cinematic machinery of the plot serves as a cage for the play that is trying to get out, leading me to think Mx. Arshad might just benefit from a certain amount of theatrical poverty like Jerzy’s. Mx. Arshad isn’t going to win the representation war in the black box of Annex Theater — or any theater in the world. Theater will lose that war every time. Mx. Arshad might, however, find a genuine way to explore an idea within a truly theatrical form with a truly theatrical devotion, and it may contain a model for the diversity about which so much is vapidly written. Seattle could use less talk about representation and more actual models for behavior, and I imagine Mx. Arshad may contribute if only Mx. Arshad will overcome the tendency toward camera envy.

Categories Theater

Omar Willey was born at St. Frances Cabrini Hospital in Seattle and grew up near Lucky Market on Beacon Avenue. He believes Seattle is the greatest city on Earth and came to this conclusion by travelling much of the Earth. He is a junior member of Lesser Seattle and, as an oboist, does not blow his own trumpet. Contact him at omar [at] seattlestar [dot] net