Tuesday, August 23, 2005

Peter Sellars on Public Space as Democracy

There is a fantastic interview with the prolific contemporary artist, Peter Sellars in the January 05 edition of PAJ: Performing Arts Journal. Not only, but his initial comments on public space dovetail very well with emphases that I have not yet blogged from All That is Solid Melts into Air. Therefore, I'm going to post some of the interview below.

PAJ: Why don't we talk about your efforts to open up a Greek clasic for contemporary audiences?

Sellars: Well, for me, one of the most important things about Greek theatre is theatre as part of government, theatre as part of a democracy, theatre as one of the primary cornerstone institutions of democracy. What moves me so much about Greek theatre is this aspiration towards the care and maintenance part of democracy, which of course is where America is in serious trouble. You can make all the declarations you want, but in fact working democracy is constantly menaced, for example, by money. That's why Euripides is filled with all these speeches against money having the final voice. As we know in America, your ability to enter public space, which has been privatized, is your ability to pay.

One of the most powerful images of Greek theatre is this giant ear carved into the side of a mountain--a listening space. The power of Greek theatre is acoustic. It was about creating architecture in which a single voice reaches the top of the mountain . . . the idea is that you make a structure that has a seat for every citizen. In Greece, democracy is a wonderful thing unless you happen to be a woman, a child, or a foreigner. Those are the people who couldn't vote and had no citizenship. Every Greek play is about women, children, and foreigners. So the idea that you're actually creating this special sound space, listening space, for the voices that are not heard in the senate, for exactly the voices that have been ignored in the corridors of power, as a society you say, wait a minute, unless there is a place we are really hearing them, we don't have a democracy. We have to take special effort to make sure that these voices are heard and included and recognized.

PAJ: In European societies under the Soviet Union, theatre functioned the same way, which in some measure is why it has lost its power and impact in society now. In the absence of a diverse media, free press or public spaces, people read the interpretations of the classics, usually reinterpretations, as political commentary.

Sellars: Exactly. And it became, again, a place where what could not be said anywhere else could finally be said. You're creating the potential of a democratic public space. "What is public space?" I think is the biggest question of the twenty-first century. What way can we create and sustain a space where a diversity of voices are present? All of the questions around why aren't we hearing from certain people and from certain parts of the society are really in play about how we shape theatre right now. It's a public space where we are physically the planet. So, this creation of shared spaces across the twenty-first century is the primary motivating factor for me in shaping [my] projects. Who needs to meet, in what ways can they meet, in what ways can we creat the platform so that meeting has potential for the future.

. . . . . . . .

Sellars: Quick change never lasts; it always creates a backlash whereas real change is actually moving deeply through people's attitudes across a generation. What we do in theatre--the word "culture"--is about cultivation. You're planting a seed as deeply as you can plant it, so that it will have long-term consequences.

PAJ: Hannah Arendt had elaborated the idea of theatregoing as citizenship. Herbert Blau had that vision, too. I see you in that tradition.

Sellars: Of course, yes, absolutely.

. . . . . . . .

Sellars:One thing that's very important is to access a voice that goes beyond the editorial pages of this week's newspapers so that we actually get what the roots of the discussion are. [To] think about the future in a more creative and open way than just simply shifting a few degrees in current policy. That's why Euripides is always showing you children and old people in play after play. What he's trying to say is, look fifty years back, and look fifty years ahead. Don't just solve the problem for the next ten minutes. He's always [asking] you to take this longer view. [Indeed,] reenergizing of the debate by reimagining the vocabulary of the debate is a very important contribution for artists to make at this time.

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