Reviewer's Note: For a while now I have been considering how we might use theater in the brewing of our theology. I am particularly intrigued with the work of TNT The New Theatre as they explore through theater the absurdities of culture. Although not religious in any sense TNT frequently touches upon the culture of spirituality. I will address the idea of theater and the brewing of theology elsewhere. Here, I present a general review of TNT THE NEW THEATRE with the hope that you read and enjoy the book and learn something of the role of the theater in ordinary life.
TNT The New Theatre, Paul Stebbings & Phil Smith, Triarchy Press, Axminster, England, September 20, 2020. ISBN: 978-1-911193-83-8; Paperbound, 246p, $28/£15
Note: The book is also available as a downloadable pdf (ISBN: 978-1-911193-85-2 from the publisher’s website (https://www.triarchypress.net/tnt.html)
TNT The New Theatre takes us on a rollicking journey through the first forty years of the world’s most extraordinary, imaginative, and successful touring company, a company that “started with nothing but three unemployed actors in my mum’s little car.” Although only forty years old, it can safely be said that TNT harkens back to the16th century Italy Commedia dell'arte. Commedia, characterized by often grotesquely masked performers playing exaggerated stock character types, were scripted and improvised performances based on scenarios designed to poke fun at the then current mores—and make people think. TNT does nothing less.
Each TNT performance forces each actor, each musician to stretch themselves. Likewise, there is no pandering to the audience’s bland expectations. They too are challenged to stretch beyond their preconceived ideas.
For the first twenty-four pages of TNT The New Theatre Paul and Phil explore the company’s roots in the work of Vsevolod Myerhold, who as part of the Russian-based “World of Art” was influenced by both Commedia dell'arte and the artistic Symbolism Movement (also influenced by Commedia dell'arte).
The book is uniquely written as an “every other chapter” book. The authors compare it to Moby Dick, which alternates chapters between Captain Ahab’s quest to capture Moby Dick and an explanation of the life of a whaler and whale hunting, and the life of a whale. Not incidentally, the dramatization of Moby Dick has thus far been TNT’s largest production.
With its “every other chapter” the story reads as if the Company were riding wild waves tossing them to and fro. And in so many ways, they were. For such is the history and evolution of TNT as the Company rides the crest between performances and discovery.
Paul and Phil as they write, I think, explore the adventure, rather than merely lay out the adventure. To this reader it seems that their writing is not so much to present the Company’s history and discoveries over the years, as it is an opportunity for them to think through the discoveries: What they mean to them as TNT’s founders and as individuals, and what they mean to the Company as a whole, and her performers, as well as to the audience.
The last chapter, “Conclusions,” by Paul, synthetizes some of these discoveries as “conclusions.” Some of these “conclusions” indirectly offer words of advice to those who might seek to imitate TNT (and there are many), while others are simply comments on how happenstance events shaped TNT. The real value in the book, in my opinion, is what is found between the Preface and “Conclusion.” Knowing Phil’s writing style I expected that the work would not be boring. What I didn’t expect was that Phil and Paul’s delightful writing style would draw me so deeply into the adventures and discoveries that flowed over the forty years. I laughed with and felt the anguish of both Paul and Phil, along with the Company. In an unexpected way I became part of TNT Theatre.
Founded in 1980, TNT give more performances in more countries in a single year than any other theatre company in the world. TNT, as a theatre company not only stretches each performer (and musician), but also the audience. Every performance is complex and full of deep, multi-layered symbolism. What intrigues both critics and audiences alike is that TNT performs with the expectation that the audience will ride to their level. No matter where TNT performs it refuses to lower itself to the benign expectations of the audience.
About the Authors
Paul is the co-founder, along with Phil Smith, of TNT Theatre. Beginning as actor-producer, Paul now functions as theater director and writer. In 2014 he was awarded an MBA by Queen Elizabeth for his contribution to British Culture. Paul was born in Nottingham and now resides in Munich.
Phil is the co-founder, along with Paul Stebbings, of TNT. He is a performance-maker, writer, and academic researcher. He serves TNT as dramaturge and co-writer.
© Frank A. Mills, Nvember 2020