Song theatre is a term we use to describe the genre of some of our work, but the term is not yet in general use in the theatre field, especially in Hong Kong. At its most basic, it means a type of theatre in which song is one of the most significant elements. However, the term as we use it defines it as separate from musical theatre, even though both involve the use of live singing.
The term musical theatre carries more than just the combination of theatre with music; it also the content, structure, and conventions of a genre. Opera also carries with it a great weight of conventions, which make it an inaccurate term to apply to many theatre pieces which incorporate songs. Song theatre as a term carries no equivalent fixed conventions (yet), and thus is a useful term to apply to other types of theatre in which the use of song is one of the most significant elements. So we could start by saying that song theatre is theatre of songs, but free from the conventions of musical theatre or opera.
Having said that, perhaps this différance isn’t enough to satisfy most theatre students or post-structuralists, so it is worth pursuing what song theatre generally does contain. In order to do this, we’ll have to look for some examples of companies or specific performances described as ‘song theatre.’
Examples of Song Theatre
The term is often used to talk about companies in Poland who make use of traditional polyphonic songs in their performances, and often these companies have some connection to Grotowski (although this does not mean that their performances are necessarily ‘Grotowskian’). According to professor Maria Shevtsova:
[T]he three main song theatre groups among several in Poland that share, in some fashion, the Grotowski heritage: the Gardzienice Centre for Theatre Practices, Song of the Goat, and Teatr ZAR.
In Hidden Territories, Alison Hodge describes the work of Gardzienice as a type of ‘song theatre’ often described as ‘ethno-oratorio’ and goes on to use the term song theatre again in describing their work Avvakum. In another book on Actor Training, Hodge states that all of Gardzienice’s activities combine to make a ‘unique song theatre’ and lists song theatre as a term in the index.
Maria Shevtsova uses the term song theatre specifically as a genre that grew out of Grotowski’s research in the ‘post-theatrical epoch’ and applies it specifically to Teatr ZAR as an example: “The song theatre of greatest interest to this paper is that of Teatr ZAR in Wroclaw”. Shevtsova suggests in the same paper the relationship between Grotowski, song theatre and Polish culture:
[I]t is worth noting that off-shoots of Grotowski’s Art as Vehicle appear, even if not intentionally as ‘Grotowskian’, in the song theatre to be found in Poland, where they are grafted without much effort to the tradition of singing of this country.
In another paper, Shevtsova refers to ZAR as “an exceptionally powerful song theatre group”
Song of the Goat
Song of the Goat is another company explicitly referred to as song-theatre (this time with a hyphen) in The Cambridge Introduction to Theatre Directing.
Song of the Goat is song-theatre, having started its life-path with polyphonic singing and, especially, lamentations, perhaps the most elemental and potent form of singing in Europe. (The company’s name refers to the choral hymn, the dithyramb, sung and danced in Ancient Greece to honour Dionysus, the god of ecstasy, wine and fertility.)
Characteristics of Song Theatre
We can get some clues as to the characteristics of song theatre from the above examples:
- They share an emphasis on the group singing traditional polyphony together, both as training and performance practice.
- There is an interest in anthropology and research into traditional culture, of which song is a significant part.
- There is a discourse underpinning the use of song in performance, which relates back to ancient Greek theatre and traditional cultures.
- The groups’ vocal practice is inherently connected to an intense physical practice in training and performance.
- The groups are Polish, though often include international collaborators and work in multiple languages.
- Songs performed are often (but not always) in languages not intended to be understood by the audience.
- Meaning is built from a mix of sound, visual metaphor, physical expressivity and text.
And of course the groups are connected to Grotowski in some way. But are all of these characteristics necessary for us to call it song theatre?
Helen Chadwick Song Theatre
An counterexample worthy of note is Helen Chadwick, a British musician and singer who uses the term ‘song theatre’ in describing her own work. This means the term has begun to encompass not only Polish companies after Grotowski, but international work that places a similar emphasis on song. As well as having an in depth knowledge of traditional polyphonic song, Chadwick also composes original unaccompanied polyphonic music, drawing on different sources for texts which include many performed in English. The result is very different from the examples above: the lyrics are often intended to be understood intellectually and not only viscerally. In the example below the work was actually referred to as an ‘opera’ even though it bears little relation to the conventions of that form.
It is worth noting that in this case modern multiculturalism was a central topic, and one could argue that the urban documentary research parallels the anthropological research of the groups above.
The essence of drama, deriving from its origins, is to be simultaneously speech and song, poetry and action, colour and dance. To say it all in one word as did the ancient Greeks: music.
The close relationship between theatre and song is something not newly discovered or unique to the groups mentioned above, nor have they ever claimed this to be the case. Being aware of the examples above is useful in a descriptive sense: we can discuss work which shares some of these characteristics and place it in the context of other such work in order to better understand or criticise it. However it becomes absurd if we attempt to apply the term prescriptively: ‘the work must include anthropology, languages your audience doesn’t understand, physical theatre… oh, and you really should be Polish.’ If we use it in this way, then, like musical theatre, song theatre will become tied to conventions (however experimental or contemporary they may be when first created) and we’ll have to come up with another term.
For us, ‘song theatre’ simply means theatre in which the most important part is song, yet the form and content is free from the constraints of other genre conventions.
This is something we try to emphasise in the song theatre workshops we are holding now: song theatre is not a prescriptive form, but a way to describe our attempts at the creation of new forms emphasising song.
I received a response from Professor Shevtsova regarding the origins of the term ‘Song Theatre’ stating that this use of the term originates with her, and that it is accepted by both Teatr ZAR and Song of the Goat.