'Theater is at its essence, a very human endeavor': A deep dive into theater's past, including Peoria's vaudeville era
COVID-19 fundamentally changed the way we view and understand the world around us. Post lockdowns, many industries are grappling with how to regain their footing, especially those who were hit the hardest such as theaters and live performance venues.
And as theaters look to pave a new way after almost two years of being shut down, the questions of why artists continue to make theater, and what purpose it has within our society becomes all too relevant. And in order to fully understand that, it’s imperative that we understand the thousands of years that came before, which shaped and developed theater into the art form many are inspired and drawn to today.
Theater in rituals and ceremonies
Before there was theater, there were ceremonies and rituals in various cultures. Many scholars argue that this is how theater first evolved, according to Dr. Travis Stern, an associate professor of theater history and dramatic literature at Bradley University.
“There's not necessarily a direct progression, but that some of those elements of ritual and ceremony were taken away from their original intention and brought into a new kind of performance area, just happens to be what we would call theater now,” Stern explained.
These rituals and ceremonies didn’t have just one purpose. Sometimes it was entertainment, sometimes it was used to incite change, and that changes from culture to culture.
“With the Greeks or with the Egyptians, it becomes mimetic. It becomes an imitation of an action, a representation of something else that exists, or they want to exist in that society. But…African communities perform in a way…that it's much more about group sharing. It's much more about a collaboration between performer and audience, rather than a presentation for an audience,” said Stern.
Theater in the beginning was also largely guided by philosophical ideas, since philosophers were prominent figures at this time. Travis says this is especially true during the Golden Age of Greece.
“Aristophanes takes some of the leading philosophers of the day, makes them characters in one of his comedies as a way to critique their explanations of the world,” Travis said.
He noted this could be compared to how Saturday Night Live frequently critiques popular figures in our society nowadays. He adds that for the Greeks, philosophy was a core tenant of their culture, and historically theater is a reflection of the society it’s placed in, therefore it makes sense that the plays of the time were very representative of these philosophical ideas.
Yet, even the theater of today includes and converses with these philosophical trends.
“Certainly, we're not debating the same things that Aristotle and Plato and all of those thinkers were debating, but we also are kind of debating those things at the same time in new terms, with new terminology, with new technology… the large questions never really go away. So the presentation of large questions for the society around them never really go away. Now, we see them on television. We see them in film. We see them on TikToks. We also see them on stage.”
The arrival of Thespis
While the specific start date surrounding theater varies depending on what part of the world you’re looking at, there is a key figure that emerges from the crowd within Western theater that creates a movement around the 6th century BC. According to Aristotle, this was the first actor, and his name was Thespis.
“Thespis steps out of this group of 50 dancing men, and starts to portray a character. He no longer is Thespis. He's now portraying Dionysus, and all of the other men start to praise him and all the other men start to acknowledge that this is now a portrayal of someone rather than, you know, the guy who came on stage with us,” Stern said.
If Thespis sounds familiar, it’s probably because the word “thespian” is named after him, which is what we sometimes call theatrer-makers and artists today. And not only was Thespis’ entrance significant, but who he entered with, or rather, who he didn’t enter with, also had a lot of influence.
“Thespis comes out alone. It takes a little bit of development to move from the first actor to the second actor, and having two characters on stage rather than one…this is something we see develop over Greek drama. If Thespis had walked out of that group of 50 guys, with two or three more people, I think it changes our focus in western theater on more of a group connection, rather than this impulse we have toward idealizing a star or idolizing a star,” said Stern.
Does the manner in which Thespis first emerged thousands of years ago foreshadow the current society’s obsession with celebrities and stardom? It’s possible.
The evolution of storytelling
As theater progresses throughout the world, there are certain tales and stories that continue to resonate with us today.
Oedipus Rex, also known as Oedipus the King was a tragedy written by Sophocles and was first performed around 429 BC. However, many are familiar with the enthralling tale of a King who unknowingly fulfilled a devastating prophecy that results in him gouging his eyes out.
Or, William Shakespeare, who continues to be the most produced playwright in the world, though he died in 1616. Still, he lives on in his plays that we willingly consume time and time again, such as Hamlet, Romeo and Juliet, King Lear, Much Ado About Nothing, and Twelfth Night. So why do audiences continue to see and read stories that not only have been told time and time again, but ones that we already know the exact ending to?
Travis Stern offers an explanation.
“In many ways, it's like how we tell stories today with the Marvel Cinematic Universe with Star Wars,” said Stern. “With Batman, there have been so many different Batman movies, that every one of them tells a slightly different story with a slightly different meaning with a slightly different perspective on the world. Though the characters and the basic story is one we've known for a very long time, Batman's the good guy, Joker's the bad guy, someone's going to be at risk, someone's going to be saved. And ultimately, it's going to work out.”
Regardless of the tale, our society seems to value the limitless creative options a story can take, even if the general structure is essentially the same. This creativity that comes with making a story somewhat new again and presenting it to audiences doesn’t just hold creative value, but also monetary value.
Theater as an industry and profession
During the Enlightenment, people began to think about theater a bit differently.
“Theater has long been an industry seen alongside, you know, other other merchants, other makers of goods. So we start to see in the Enlightenment, this study of how can you do theater better? How can you be more effective? And that becomes something that every generation, that every new style of art re-grapples with. How can we make this relevant to us today?” said Stern.
As we start to see new ways of doing theater come to the stage, it’s important to note that these shifts aren't necessarily dictated by what the audience wants to see.
“I think very often we see artists, writers and directors and players decide, well, this is what I want to say, but I can't say it in this old way. I need to say it in a new way. And very often, audiences meet that with a lot of resistance,” explained Stern.
He notes that during this time, the development of Realism within the theater even caused riots. And while the movement is now highly intertwined with our linear narrative storytelling, theater still has the power to make one feel uncomfortable in the way that we’re not always ready to have a mirror held up to ourselves. And many times, Realism in theater does just that.
While theater was seen as an industry, many times it was still held in a low regard.
“Because theater makers don't make anything of a tangible lasting good, it's easy to dismiss them. And it's easy to put them off to the side among others who aren't quote unquote, contributing to society. So the professionalization had kind of a double edged sword,” Travis said.
And as theater makers searched to stand out from the crowd in a different, unique way and prove themselves on stage, a new form of theatre developed that was essential to this mission.
Near the end of the 19th century, vaudeville exploded onto the scene. This form of live performance featured several smaller acts, ranging from acrobats, small plays, seals, dancers, essentially any type of live performance that could be imagined was fair game.
Dr. Sunny Stalter-Pace is the Hargis professor of American Literature at Auburn University. Born and raised in Peoria, Stalter-Pace showed interest in old movies, musicals, and things that had a similar nostalgic feel of the vaudeville era from a young age. Eventually, she published a biography of vaudeville performer Gertrude Hoffman.
“She really mixed stuff that she saw abroad with very funny and topical things and imitations of other famous people. She's really interesting,” Stalter-Pace said.
Working class people were initially the ones who attended vaudeville performances, but thanks to Tony Pastor, who pushed for vaudeville to become more respectable and upscale, vaudeville became something that middle class people attended as well.
“People couldn't make as many, you know, risqué jokes or things like that. And if they did, they would get in trouble,” said Stalter-Pace.
However, the people who were in the acts were much more diverse.
“They were people from all different backgrounds, a lot of first generation immigrants, and people who were willing to travel for the majority of their year,” said Stalter-Pace.
Once a vaudeville performer made it big, they were typically booked on a traveling circuit. And Peoria was a stop on one of these circuits, said Stalter-Pace.
“It was on the Orpheum circuit…It was like a smaller town that was in between where people would go for like one or two night performances on the way between bigger cities in the Midwest,” she said.
And Sunny Stalter-Pace noted it wasn’t always easy to play in a city like Peoria.
“I mean, Peoria was a distillery town, it was kind of a tough town," she said. "So it was more of a tough audience for vaudeville performers…you had to get people's attention who were not just there to enjoy the theater, they were there to make a scene and have a good time. So you had to kind of cut through that to be able to play in Peoria in the early 20th century.”
Sunny added Peoria was very much a wild card. With other cities, performers typically knew what to expect. However, that wasn’t the case here.
“Asking will it play in Peoria was sort of like asking, you know, is this going to work outside of those big cities that we’re more familiar with?”
Vaudeville came to America at a time where immigration was at a high. Stalter-Pace said that many scholars believe vaudeville had a key purpose in helping people deal with the big changes that were happening in the world at this time.
“There's a lot of ethnic comedy, like very stereotypical ethnic comedy. And scholars have talked about how ethnic comedy and vaudeville is a way for people to deal with the kind of changing makeup of the city, the changing makeup of their neighborhood, and to laugh at people who are different than them, but also to laugh at people who are the same as them and say, yeah, we are like that, too. But we're all kind of working together. So it's sort of a way of seeing the melting pot in action.”
Not only did vaudeville give people a taste of the melting pot that was around them, but it also catered to an increasingly short attention span, one that is still prevalent today.
“Vaudeville is really indicative of the modern mind. It's something where you start to see people having the short attention span that we really associate with today. Wanting things to move fast, wanting to have different feelings in quick succession. So it's a little bit like changing the channels really quick,” Stalter-Pace explained.
The end of an era
While vaudeville had wild success, it was short-lived in Peoria. After just 16 years in business, the Orpheum theater closed. This is largely because mass media like radio, television, and cinema pushed vaudeville to the side. However, the aesthetic of vaudeville is actually quite mobile, according to Sunny.
“That ends up moving into silent film in comedy. The more verbal back and forth jokiness goes into radio and early TV. So there's definitely a lot of the vaudeville style that just goes into new forms.”
And, Sunny Stalter-Pace said in Peoria we continue to see remnants of vaudeville, from the emergence of Richard Pryor, to our current lively theater community.
“The kind of stand up comedy that he did, and particularly the way he, you know, played in really complicated ways on racial stereotypes," she said. "That would be one way of thinking about how vaudeville hung around.”
Today, people are still searching for new ways to do theater. And with that, there’s an interesting dance that occurs between theater artists, and the audiences that support them.
With so much money being poured into the commercial side of theater with tours and Broadway, theatre artists are trying to strike a balance between creating the art that speaks to them, creating art that will bring in money, and creating art that audiences want to see. But sometimes, perhaps that sweet spot is found in providing something audiences didn’t know they wanted until it was right in front of them.
“Like Lin Manuel Miranda does with 'Hamilton.' Who knew that rapping Founding Fathers would become the greatest hit of the 21st century onstage so far? Right? I would not have had my money on that,” said Travis Stern, the Bradley University professor.
And while there’s always going to be some new technology, a new story to tell, or a new way to present an idea, some things never change, and that is why people choose to make theater in the first place.
“Theater is at its essence, a very human endeavor,” Stern said. “It is an art of empathy, to connect with people who you may or may not know, playing characters that you may or may not know, and showing all of us something that we may not always be ready to reckon with. It's the way it was for the Greeks, it's the way it was, for the Elizabethans, it's the way it is for us now, it'll be the way it is as far forward as humans continue to talk to each other, to connect with each other to communicate, to tell stories, there will always be a kind of theatrical element.”
Part two of this series will look toward the future of the theater community in Peoria. Panelists from leading theater organizations in Greater Peoria will sit down with Out and About host Jenn Gordon to discuss the current landscape of the theater world around us, what challenges it is grappling with, and how to forge ahead in a post-lockdown world. That stories premieres Oct. 21 on Out and About, and on WCBU’s News Magazine All Things Peoria.
This story was inspired by NPR’s "The Next Stage Series." That six-part series covers how regional theaters across the nation are grappling with a changing theater landscape amid illness, lockdowns, and social unrest. Listen to the first episode here.