These days I’m obsessed with theatrical metaphor.
I don’t mean dramatic metaphor. That, as I understand it, occurs when the events or characters of a play illuminate a real situation outside the theatre—a theatrical commentary on the world. The classic example of dramatic metaphor is Arthur Miller’s The Crucible. While it is technically a story about the Salem witch trials, we all know it’s a dramatic metaphor for the McCarthy-led HUAC hearings in the U.S. Senate in the 1950s.
Theatrical metaphor is something different. It comes to life when the artifice of a play—the characters, plot, or situation—speaks to the audience (and actors) about themselves as they are, here and now, in this room. The technique has long served as the bread and butter of all post-modern performance, which is when actors don’t try so hard to be characters, but rather let themselves be performers for a present audience. I enjoy these performances, but I like theatrical metaphor best when it is artfully executed as part of a seemingly old-fashioned, written play.
My favourite example of theatrical metaphor is Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Two tramps kill time while waiting for the mysterious Godot to appear; they hope he will give their lives some genuine meaning. The action of the play is to wait—and to pass the time with trivial theatrical bits and tropes drawn from the long traditions of comedy and tragedy. Waiting, in that play, functions as a theatrical metaphor; the action inside the drama is identical to the experience of watching it. We, the audience, also wait for meaning to appear. We are killing time with comedy and tragedy, feeling how paltry and empty those tropes can be, as we hope and pray that a significant moment will magically appear in our evening at the theatre, and in our lives.
Toronto audiences have experienced theatrical metaphor many times. Recently, we felt its presence in a broad and comic form within Kristen Thomson’s celebratory play The Wedding Party. That hilarious, moving celebration included its audience on stage with its drunken laughter. The event created a party-like atmosphere; the audience was treated like guests. In other words, the artifice of the play worked to sync, via theatrical metaphor, with the audience’s live experience.
I was particularly thrilled by theatrical metaphor in a dance piece by Compagnie Käfig at World Stage in 2012. Agwa examined human dependence on water. Over the course of an exuberant half-hour, we watched a dozen or so remarkably talented (and fit) dancers move their bodies in extraordinary and powerful ways. The piece incorporated plastic cups filled with water, which were passed around between dancers—combined, stacked, and separated. By the end, the cups lined the front of the stage; the dancers, exhausted, dripping with sweat, drank their water. It was an incredibly moving moment because of its theatrical metaphor. Water was no longer a mere symbol for life outside the theatre. Water was precisely what those living dancers, who had worked so hard for our enjoyment, needed—there and then—in order to survive.
My play Breath In Between is best experienced and understood through theatrical metaphor. In the story, Roger has committed two consensual murders with the hope of achieving radical intimacy. We encounter him after the fact, as he meets Amy, a woman with similar aspirations. We watch them struggle to create an intimacy as intense, honest, and pure as they both desire—in spite of the huge gaps between them. They remain haunted by the two contrasting fates of Roger’s victims, Maxim and Laura. Maxim was open and present to Roger in his death, and so they experienced a meaningful, although fleeting, connection. Laura was resistant and absent, and so their encounter was disturbing and alienating. The play can be an uncomfortable experience for some due to its moral questions, but also because it asks its audience to aspire to the same goal as the characters, to achieve an intense intimacy with performers in spite of the massive gaps between them. How does it do this?
The success or failure of the acts in the play depend equally on autonomy and presence, on the willingness of Amy and Roger to remain separate people while also giving themselves over to the other person in the hope that they will experience a moment of true connection. Just as the characters face large obstacles in their ability to be autonomous and present with each other, the audience faces a similar challenge watching the drama. We all have different worldviews and philosophies, gender identities, psychological compulsions and histories, and abilities to communicate. It’s hard to bridge those gaps. Audiences need to ask themselves questions about what they’re watching, and then trust that they can reach the performers in a meaningful moment even if they never get complete answers.
Of course, it’s terrifying for any of us to expose ourselves to someone we don’t understand, or to someone we might confound. We run the risk of feeling foolish on either side. But no one can ever understand anyone else entirely, and so the play also examines how it’s a bigger risk, in the long run, for people to shy away from that precariousness, to retreat into ourselves, overcome by obstacles, be unable “to feel what it’s like, for a moment, to be you.”
The play relies heavily on a particularly baroque theatrical metaphor—namely, that an intense and meaningful relationship can exist between performers and audience in spite of the massive gaps between them. And so if the play behaves like the character Roger—recklessly willing to do anything to overcome those gaps—then it asks you, the audience, a key question about yourselves. Do you want to respond like Maxim or Laura? Will you meet this bizarre, intense, and maybe foolhardy request with autonomy and presence, or with denial and resistance?
Of course not every audience member will want to enter into a relationship of any kind with a play like Breath In Between, with its aggressive theatrical metaphor, its complicated and amorphous storytelling, its troubling intimacy and mysteriousness. That’s fair enough. There are all kinds of theatrical metaphors; most are not so dark and demanding. And there are many profound and meaningful plays that abound with dramatic metaphor—offering intelligent insights into the external world—while leaving theatrical metaphor alone. That kind of more traditional theatre engages us most when held away; seen and enjoyed from a distance. I love those plays and happily watch them when they are well conceived and performed, as they often are in theatres all over our city.
With Breath In Between, I am exploring what it takes to make a radical connection in spite of the massive disconnection that exists between people. Only a strong and uncomfortable theatrical metaphor addresses that question completely. I’m eager to take that risk with a play right now because my new novel has involved the opposite—submersion in heavy research, serious engagement with problems located in the world outside the theatre. Al-Tounsi is about the lives of Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court as they decide a Guantanamo Bay–era case. Although it was fascinating and thrilling to work on, that detailed writing (and reading) required a kind of isolation; it could never be about the present moment, the here and now of life.
And so, in the theatre, I want to create an experience that is more like an intense relationship. How can we be fully open to the pleasure and pain of presence, in spite of the almost unbridgeable challenges? We must be uncomfortable in our openness. Uncanny moments of theatrical metaphor can make me feel my body in my seat. They force me to be conscious of my own breathing, and of another person’s breathing in front of me.