An Unexpected “Re-” We May Choose to Use

April 3rd, 2012 § 0 comments

When I first heard it, it sounded strange to my ear. I wondered whether Charlie Rose had just misread his teleprompter, whether some young segment producer had written an introduction without being sufficiently steeped in theatre terminology, or whether it was simply a typo. But as my initial surprise wore off, I found I rather liked the word, and wonder whether it could brought into common usage in the arts.

Allow me to set the scene before going forward.

Having a moderate degree of interest in this week’s barrage of stunts by television’s network morning programs, I was doing a bit of channel surfing to see how the Katie Couric (ABC) vs. Sarah Palin (NBC) counterprogramming might be working, and whether CBS had anything up its sleeve as well. At one precise point, to give you a picture of the ethos of the three programs, Good Morning America had a interview with Camille Grammer directly opposite The Today Show’s visit with Tori Spelling, while CBS This Morning had a feature on what the 1940 U.S. Census reveals. In this particular atmosphere, I didn’t expect to find anything that might make me think deeply about theatre.

So when Charlie Rose, on the CBS program, began introducing an interview with Candice Bergen in conjunction with her role in Broadway’s The Best Man, it was jarring to hear the production described as, “a renewal.” Not revival, not revisal, not reinvention, not revisitation, not refurbishment. Renewal.

I’ve decided I like it.

Now there’s an argument that could be made for avoiding any of these qualifiers about plays or musicals, but there seems to be a deep desire to distinguish new work from that which dates back over some period of time, so I’ll leave that alone for today. Revival is the default mode; musicals which have been altered, whether in part or substantially from their original texts may be called revisals. The other “re’s” I’ve cited above are used on occasion, but they’re not standard terminology, in conversation or in marketing.

Yet whenever I’ve spoken to a director about staging a work which previously received a substantial production or productions some time ago, be it a decade or a century or more, they all say some variation of the same thing when asked about their work with it: “I treat it like it’s new.” Whether the creator(s) are alive or long dead, directors talk about working with the authors, collaborating with them, be it Shepard or Shakespeare. Yet the word revival carries with it, to me, a whiff of the grave, more resurrection or resuscitation of something dead than reinvigoration of something awaiting only light and air.  Yes, I’m parsing these words closely, perhaps pedantically, and through my own associations, but in a field that trades in words, their meaning and their implied or inferred (if not intended) message is tremendously important; I’m quick to challenge obfuscation or misdirection.

So I find renewal a very optimistic word, because while acknowledging history, it seems very forward looking, and indeed may reflect precisely what theatre artists hope to achieve when they look to past work for today’s repertory. It may even be goal setting: that when such works are undertaken, they should be renewed for both the participating artists and audiences, so that they are more than mere replication of something from the past, but are instead made relevant.

Do I expect this to fall readily into common parlance among our peers? No, that optimistic I’m not; it would require endless repetition. But having inveighed against the “er vs re” debate regarding the very name of our field, here’s an “re” usage I’d like to think we can all get behind when the opportunity presents itself or necessity arises.

So whether this morning’s usage was intentional, ill-informed or simply a slip, I salute Charlie Rose and his team. Renewal is refreshing.

I should note that I have not yet seen The Best Man and that nothing in this post should be construed as any comment upon that production.

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