Given that many of you reading this are probably theater practitioners, I’m guessing the odds are at least slightly low that you’ve never heard of Romare Bearden. A quick primer: a gifted artist and humanist of the Harlem Renaissance, Bearden was diversely talented, though primarily known for his collages, one of which I’ve shared here. I have always been drawn to his work, emotionally and intellectually. The stories told by his collages enchant me. The faces embedded in them speak to me. The symbols make me feel thoughtful and curious.
Lately, however, I’ve been thinking about them in a new way: specifically, I’ve been thinking about the fact that while recognizable as images, his collages do nothing to hide the simple fact of the artifice required to make them. It’s not the least bit hard to imagine Bearden’s hands sifting through scraps, assembling them this way and that, trimming them, composing an image. The human presence of the artist is right there. We are aware at all times, when viewing a Bearden collage, that we are looking at a made thing.
I would like theater to be more like this. So often, when awaiting the first lines of a play, I find myself admiring the verisimilitude of the set… only to become overly conscious, at some inopportune moment later during the action — say, when the tap on a sink clearly isn’t producing water — that the whole thing’s a sham. How superior for the set to have been simply roughed-in, so that I didn’t have any illusions to lose — so that, in fact, I would have to participate in the creation of the play by imagining the details for myself! (How much money might we save, too, for use on actors’ salaries or to lower ticket prices?) In the same vein, consider performances: under-acting always strikes me as vastly more effective than its opposite. Just say the lines, loud and clear enough that I can hear them. I will supply whatever emotion I might find missing in them, if any.
The other thing I’ve always loved about Bearden’s collages is the simplicity of his materials. The scraps with which he assembles his collages are clearly carefully chosen, of course, but they come from everyday sources. These aren’t exotic materials he’s used: bits of wallpaper, newspaper photos, posters, fabric, and even foil. The implication is this: we all have that stuff of art-making sitting at our fingertips, and we can (with the thoughtful application of artistry and genius) lift them up into profundity. We are surrounded by the elements of art.
Again, I want theater to be like this. I want it to make me go running out of the house when the show’s over, inspired to take the stuff of my life and create with it. I want it to fill me with constructive energy, to infuse my surroundings with a sense of possibility. Instead, when I see a well-made show, with everything polished and fit properly, I find myself… deflated. It’s all too nice, too perfect. Pretty to look at, but ultimately lifeless.
Bearden’s work, by contrast, is full of life: character, suffering, agony, narrative, rapture, redemption, heat, movement, music, and so much more. It’s irrepressible and honest and will not quit. For that I really love it.