Today’s post is brought to you by my rambling, mostly very unintellectual and unorganized brain. Under no circumstances should it be taken as scholarly in any way, or indeed anything other than me recording the thoughts that rattle around in my head while I’m in the booth watching my show.
You have been warned.
As the title may have already clued you in, I recently had a thought while I was watching I Hate Hamlet (and watching the audience watch I Hate Hamlet)–theatre is weird.
Don’t get me wrong. I love it. There’s nothing I would rather be doing than helping a production get on its feet, watching as it takes on shape and dimension and turns into something beautiful, watching people’s reactions to this thing that we have all worked so hard to make the best it can be. It’s one of my favorite things in the world.
But setting all that aside, if you take a step back and look at it objectively, there’s not denying that theatre, like so many things we humans do, is a very strange practice indeed.
Think about it. You are at the theatre, surrounded by people, most of whom you have never met. You sit in a small, often uncomfortable seat, in close quarters with a bunch of strangers, and you wait. Sometimes there is music, or a preshow performance. Sometimes there is a set to look at, an abstract structure oar a facsimile of a real place. You read the program. By mutual agreement, no one talks too loudly or eats popcorn or slurps soda (at least, in most theatres). After a while the lights dim, and once everyone quiets down. You sit in the dark, and the lights come up onstage, and people–ordinary people just like you–come out and perform what amounts to a very elaborate game of make believe.
Some of these things also apply to many types of performance or art–a movie theatre, for example, has the same surreal quality of a bunch of strangers gathering together to watch a made up story. But there is something about the theatre in general, the fact that the performers are right there, in front of you, that the story is happening in this precise moment, that gives it an immediacy unmatched by any other medium (even live music has a different sort of vibe). The audience sits, and watches, and listens. No one talks, no one heckles, no one jumps up onstage and tries to join the action.
Of course, this wasn’t always the case. For a long time theatre was a form of popular entertainment much like sports games are today–vendors sold food, and people shouted responses at the actors, and ate and talked and paid attention when they felt like it. Somewhere along the line something shifted in the way society views the theatre, and it became an almost sacred space, with a set of rules and manners that you violate only at your peril. I leave it to someone much more learned and intellectual than I do discuss whether this is a good or bad thing–there is certainly something to be said for participatory theatre. But the fact remains that nowadays, when one goes to the theatre one is expected to behave a certain way–and the sort of amazing thing is that, for the most part, people do.
<liberal arts student disclaimer>
I should mention at this point that when I speak of theatre in this context, I’m really just talking about “typical” Western, modern theatre. There are as many types of theatre as there are different human cultures, and a good many of them are very different from this description. But I am but one blogger and I can’t address all of them, so I’m just addressing the theatre I’m familiar with.
</liberal arts student disclaimer>
The process of theatre is no less strange from the creator’s point of view, and perhaps stranger. My mom asked me the other day whether it made me sad to have to tear down a set that we spent hours and days and weeks building just a few weeks before. It can be sad, I said, but it’s part of the job–you know that nothing you’re building is going to last forever. That’s why you take pictures. And it can be fun to smash apart something that was the bane of your existence while you were building it.
But I digress.
When you think about it, it is exceedingly strange that we spend all these many hours working and rehearsing, building and painting, stressing and sweating and possibly crying, to make this thing that will only exist for a few weeks or months (or possibly years, if you’re on Broadway, but that’s a topic for another day), and then be gone forever. Theatre is the definition of ephemeral art, surpassed only perhaps by cooking. It would seem that we would have every reason to despair at the thought that all this work will disappear, and that possibly in a year’s time no one will even remember that it happened.
That can be a depressing thought. But I think the thing that keeps us going is the hope that someone will remember. The goal of reaching out, through a performance of a made up story with made up people with made up problems, and touching someone, a real person with a real story, and real problems, and somehow making them better, or changing them in some small way, or even just giving them a really fantastic evening to look back on and warm themselves with on cold grey days. Certainly working on a play, especially a really powerful one, can change you, make you think of things you never considered, see the world a different way. And the culmination of the process is to share it with other people, to share what you have learned and felt.
The sharing is crucial, because theatre is one of the only arts that cannot be practiced in isolation. You can always draw for yourself, write for yourself, play music for yourself, even dance for yourself, but it is very difficult to put on a play for yourself. The audience is the whole reason the play exists, and it isn’t considered “finished” until it has been performed for someone else. In order to tell a story you have to have someone to tell it to. Thus not only is theatre ephemeral, it is also by definition communal, an art that depends on shared experience. It’s one group of people (very rarely is everything done by one person) working together to create something to show to another group of people, saying, “Look at what we made for you. Let us share this little snippet of human experience”.
I think that’s why people sit so still and so quiet when they watch theatre. If it’s any good at all, there’s something about the immediacy of the presentation, the direct connection between the performer and the audience as they share their story, that inspires a sort of reverence. ( This makes it sound like all theatre is grandiose and serious, but of course there’s farce and comedy and clowning and a lot of other kinds of performance that have nothing reverent about them. But even they are about connection with the audience, picking the right things to make them laugh, so I think they can be included in this idea of theatre as a communal form.)
If you made it this far, bravo. Thanks for reading my rambling thoughts about the theatre. In conclusion (if there is any conclusion to be made), theatre is a weird thing, but it’s a pretty fantastic weird thing, and I’m incredibly grateful to be able to be a part of it.