My wife looks over my shoulder. “What are you doing?” I’m writing a column. “What are you writing about?”
I don’t know.
Years and years ago I figured there was a secret to theatre. If I hung on just long enough, I’d learn that secret. If I took enough classes and worked on enough shows with enough different directors, the secret would be laid bare.
In college a few of us sat around the Green Room and told stories. Some of the upper-classmen told stories of department productions in the days before we young ‘uns came along. We all agreed that the main director of the department had probably forgotten more about theatre than we’d ever learn.
Over the years my reasons for wanting to do theatre have changed. When I was kid, I thought I had a decent voice. When we did little plays in class, I’d be asked to be the narrator. (An amazing thing to realize that the narrator had more lines than either the biggest Billy Goat Gruff or the Troll.) Realizing that people with decent voices might be in the theatre, I had a reason to start paying attention to it. Then I figured out that girls could be found in the theatre. Another reason. Then, after college, theatre became a job.
But why stay with it? What makes theatre important? After all, people with decent voices can be found in any profession. There are plenty of places to meet girls (and, as it happens, I didn’t marry a theatre-person). And goodness knows theatre ain’t the easiest way to make a living. Other jobs certainly pay more.
I think I found something in high school and college that I’m only starting to realize now and only half-able to articulate.
Theatre is a story-telling art in which the story is told through the artifice of being told by people pretending to be the characters to whom the story is happening.
Some people like to emphasize the ritualistic elements of theatre. These folks suggest that theatre grew out of religious exercise and continues to have religious roots. Curiously, I’ve never been attracted to that. Numerous problems arise in trying to pound the square peg of theatre into the round hole of religion. As a religious person myself (I shan’t trouble you with my particular beliefs), I have a belief in the reality of religious experience. It isn’t make-believe. Theatre is all about make-believe.
I have a friend who is an ordained priest who works at the Vatican. When my friend says Mass, the wafers and wine become the actual Host of the Lord. Were I to say the same exact words as part of a play, the wafers would remain wafers. Because I’m playing a priest, I’m not one in reality. If I play the young man in Our Town, the Stage Manager doesn’t marry me to Emily. At the end of the show I go home to my real wife, the woman I really love. (My real feelings for the actress playing Emily are immaterial. As long as the stage relationship is true to the context and text, no one cares what goes on inside my private self.)
So, reality isn’t the key to theatre. “Realism” is a strange word and a stranger concept. What is real? Well, not what’s on stage.
What are we looking for in the theatre, then?
Easy to say, incredibly hard to do sometimes. . . . incredibly hard to do often.
What’s the difference between reality and truth? Well, in the sense I’m writing here, reality is the actual universe in which we live. I can’t be invisible. I have to pay a certain amount of money to put gas in my car. Physical laws suggest that my car will have to burn the gas in a particular way for the car to move.
What is truth? Truth comes closer to the true metaphors by which we humans can understand something. Aesop’s fable about the fox and the sour grapes is a true story, not a real story. Foxes don’t talk. But the story says something true about a portion of what it means to be human. Sometimes if we don’t get what we thought we wanted, we conclude that what we didn’t get must have been sour.
Understanding truth sometimes has little to do with reality. In fact, it often appears that the truer something is, the less real it is.
Community makes theatre. I guess a person sitting alone in a chair in a room could make something. But I don’t know that we’d recognize it as theatre. And since theatre is told live, you not only have to have a performer, but you must also have an audience to make something we’d recognize as theatre.
And, as any tour-er can tell you, there have been nights in which the house seems fairly empty, and the actors are giving the equivalent of a “command performance.” But generally we expect a few performers and at least a few in the audience.
Precisely that element has kept me involved in theatre my whole life, I think. Theatre has been a place where I could be part of the group, part of a clan. But not family. Family is different.
Actors and directors and stage managers and designers and technicians and musicians and all manner of folks work on a show. They hunt for the truth of a moment. How best to light it? How best to show it? How best to costume the actors so they can move appropriately and show the context of relationships and status and . . .and . . . .
and . . .?
And they find the truth of the moment. So what?
Then the audience can sit (or stand or squat or whatever) and immediately know that some other person in the world has felt what they have felt. That one person in the audience can know (in a way few things are known) that she or he is not a lone figure. In such a moment, such a person becomes staggeringly human.
When theatre really works, there are many such moments. When there is a connection of the truth of the story and the characters between the performers and the audience, the audience becomes blessedly human. And the performers who have created this moment are likewise blessed.
Good theatre humanizes people. Bad theatre may still have entertainment value. (I hope.) We constantly hunt for good theatre and for the way to make good theatre.
How can we make it happen more?
I don’t know.