The Theatre of Theseus

At the last GVPTA Making a Scene Conference, Dawn Brennan posed the question: “Should all theatre companies last forever?” Previously, and during this conference, I’ve been of the loud frame of mind: “Out with the old, in with the new!” But of course theatre is heavily weighted on the paradox of Generous Orthodoxy. (Yes, I have been heavily listening to Revisionist History).

Summed up, Generous Orthodoxy is defined as being open minded to change (generous) and rooted in history and tradition (orthodoxy). It is hard for the two to work together, however when they do it’s a wonderful way to progress without ignoring the past.

So let me get back to Dawn’s question, “Should all theatre companies last forever?” My initial thought to this question was “No. Not unless they are willing to adapt and change with the culture.” But today I was presented with an old philosophical paradox called “The Ship of Theseus” or “Theseus’s paradox” by Plutarch. (again, more Revisionist History)  Here’s the coles notes version, or to be more specific and millennial, the wikipedia summary:

The ship wherein Theseus and the youth of Athens returned from Crete had thirty oars, and was preserved by the Athenians down even to the time of Demetrius Phalereus, for they took away the old planks as they decayed, putting in new and stronger timber in their places, in so much that this ship became a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow; one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same. — Plutarch, Theseus[2]

Plutarch thus questions whether the ship would remain the same if it were entirely replaced, piece by piece.

2 possible responses right? Yes it’s the same ship, or no it’s a new ship. So I pose this question to theatre practitioners now. If a theatre company adapts and changes with Culture, even changes hands several times, but is has the same name, business license etc. is it the same theatre company?

Balancing the weight of historical recognition and practice with new culturally relevant practice can be an ongoing battle ground in your mind.  Often it’s a battle ground with staff. But I am truly recognizing the importance of acknowledging and learning the historical value of an organization or practice, in order to push it forward.

I can’t answer Dawn’s question . Nor do I feel I need to. Dawn’s question sprouts a local Theatre of Theseus paradox which spurs on a needed conversation and action with theatre practitioners. Don’t dispose of the history, learn from it. Also, don’t practice something simply because its traditional. Question the tradition and push it forward.

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