Wednesday, March 19, 2008

metaDRAMA: Is It Possible to Express the Value of Theater?

I fell in love with the French word frisson only within the last four years, picking it up in (probably) the pages of the New Yorker. But I'd fallen in love with theater many years earlier, first because it was one of the only things my mother and I could agree on; second, because in high school, it had helped me get outside of myself -- emotionally, intellectually, and physically; and third, while in college, because of how close and how cool it was, a more intimate proximity, a more dangerous presence, a more open-ended thrill. One summer, we did Constantinople Smith and Sure Thing in a girl named Raquel's loft apartment in SoHo; after school, I worked with MCC Theater's youth company and instantly felt more connected to and more comfortable with that diverse bunch of kids than I would've anywhere else; in college, I got some friends together and we just decided to mount a production of Speed-the-Play. Why not? We were young, willing, and eager to explore.

Which leads me to March 19th, 2008, to the question Matt Slaybaugh asks, "What is the 'value' of theater?" and to that word, frisson, which sits right up there with John Patrick Shanley's use of the word exquisite -- it's got a certain sliver of pain, or terrible terrible joy, in it. Well, aside from the aforementioned educational, exploratory, and entertainment value, here's why theater is so much more important and powerful than other arts: it brings people together.

Film, at its heart, divides. The very thing itself, a cold, two-dimensional image, is distant (hence projected), and what you are watching is no more than a wall, a wall that separates you, the audience, from them and the experience. There may be common themes, bound together by a powerful score, but it's artificially produced (sometimes very cleverly) by some puppet master focusing us on what they're interested in, cutting us off from the thing, perhaps, that we care about.

Art, if it has a heart (I jest, to an extent), withholds. It locks its secrets up within a frame (boundaries) and allows you to experience it, but not always to interact -- sometimes, not even to really react. It never changes (though you might), and as a perfect constant loses a certain reality: I find immortality unsettling.

Music is nothing more than the heartbeat of theater; a live performance is just that, performed, on a stage, and the instruments are simply props of actors playing specific scenes. The best learn to improvise, to make each time fresh and new; the worst burn out telling the same story without the ability to teach, or, more importantly, to learn. If you like music and not theater, you are either too lazy to open your eyes, or your attention is segmented into five-minute chunks.

But theater . . . theater can do anything. It can be a happening, anywhere. (We used to do scenes while riding in subway cars; we never bowed, we never broke the curtain.) It can work work as intimately as with one, or with hundreds; it can put the audience on the stage, or it can come down into the audience. (I still remember Bill Irwin, in Full Moon, spilling popcorn all over me; I still think of the time I danced on stage with the cast of Five Guys Named Moe.) It can use art to tell a story, it can use music, too -- even film. But it remains, throughout it all, more present, for you are not necessarily in control. Again, the frisson.

It's also more accessible. Theater requires nothing. At heart, it needs no stage (for all the world's a stage, no?), nor does it need props, costumes, or even lines. Art requires, at the very least, a pedestal, but theater -- at the heart of catharsis every time you have a tantrum -- may not even need an audience. There's a limit to the sort of music you can do without any money, certainly only so far you can go with art, and good luck making a film if you can't afford a camera, but theater needs only a spirit. That's what makes it part of a community, what helps it grow.

We live in a world, we're constantly told, that is increasingly anonymous and isolated. Well, of course, if we retire to the safety of television programs and their comfortable versions of reality. No wonder, if we resign ourselves to the passive-aggression of video games, where the most we can achieve is a high score. No surprise if we assume that canned life -- by which I mean film -- is more real than life itself. Without intimacy, there's no surprise, without surprise, everything is safe, if everything is safe, what's the point?

This blog is the start of a conversation I'd rather be having with someone in person, right now.

UPDATE: Praxis Theatre's Theatre is Territory is compiling (and updating throughout the day) a list of quotes that should help to spark discussion; after The Drunken City tonight, this'll be a great way to get back up to speed in this very valuable and important discussion.

1 comment:

Esther said...

Hey Aaron,
Very thought-provoking. It sounds like you've had some really unique, memorable experiences.

I especially like the line about good luck making a film if you can't afford a camera, but theater needs only a spirit.

A couple things come to mind. When I go to the movies, it's usually at a time when the theater isn't very crowded. So it's easy to sit by myself and feel isolated. But at the theater, even if it's not a sellout, there are usually people sitting next to me, all around me. So physically, you feel the sense of community much more deeply, even if you go alone.

I'll never forget going to Broadway for the first time last April and seeing Kevin Spacey come out on stage. He was so close I could have reached out and touched him. I was much closer than I thought I'd be. And I think I was a little bit in shock!

I love going to the stage door, too, and that's another thing you don't get from seeing a movie - the ability to talk to the actors afterward. So there's definitely a sense of immediacy, a sense of community between artist and audience that you don't normally get.

I felt it again when David Hyde Pierce broke the fourth wall at the end of Curtains to ask for donations to BC/EFA. It was a little startling to have an actor address an audience like that, because it was so unexpected.

I saw "The 39 Steps" in Boston last fall, and I thought of that when you said theater needs nothing. I just thought it was so inspired, so unlike anything I'd seen before. They do so much with four actors and a few props. It's all about creating an illusion on stage - making the audience believe someone really is fleeing for his life by running across the top of a moving train! We've become so used to elaborate special effects in movies and on tv that we forget the magic human beings can create all on our own.