What theatre gives us
I am currently reading Neil Gaiman’s The View from the Cheap Seats, a selection of his non-fiction writing. While reading one particular piece, Why Our Future Depends on Libraries, Reading and Daydreaming: The Reading Agency Lecture, 2013, I became inspired to write about theatre. Gaiman is making a case for reading fiction, no matter what kind of fiction. The first point he makes is that children should be encouraged to read any type of fiction, because it encourages a love of reading. There is no bad fiction as long as it is enjoyed, because creating a love of reading will lead to reading the more “important” work.
The second point (and it’s this point that really inspired me to write this blog), is that fiction builds empathy.
“When you watch TV or see a film, you are looking at things happening to other people. Prose fiction is something you build up from twenty-six letters and a handful of punctuation marks, and you, and you alone, using your imagination, create a world, and people it and look out through other eyes. You get to feel things, visit places and worlds you would never otherwise know. You learn that everyone else out there is a me, as well. You’re being someone else, and when you return to your own world, you’re going to be slightly changed.”
What struck me about this was how true it was, and how I had never thought about it before. I was an avid reader as a child, and read as a way to escape. Fiction has that magic power, that is unique to its medium. Thinking about that had me thinking about the medium of theatre. What about theatre makes it special as a medium? If fiction allows us to dive into other worlds, what does theatre do for us? After much thought, I came up with three things. two that are essential, and one that is almost essential: transformation, connection, and conflict.
Theatre requires an audience to suspend their disbelief, and good theatre does this by commitment and transformation. The actors transform into the characters, and then at the end of the show, they transform back into actors. You can almost hear the curtain call telling the audience, “Hey, everyone! None of this was real, but wasn’t it cool that for a period of time it felt like it was?” The stage, which is clearly a stage, transforms into a different environment; sometimes this is done with a fabulous stage design and set, sometimes it’s done by the actors transforming the environment, for example, with mime, or endowing a box as a particular object. Whether or not the actors have the help of a set, they must still use their skills to transform the stage. and convince the audience that they are in a new place, that is not in a theatre. I mention commitment, because without the actors committing to transforming themselves and the environment, it cannot happen, and the audience will not experience the magic of suspension of disbelief. I have been to shows where the actors don’t know their lines, don’t commit to their character, or don’t have the skills to portray the character, and it does prevent me from investing in the show. If they aren’t invested and committed, how am I supposed to? I have also been to shows that are magical experiences, and have left me incredibly moved, because the actors have taken me on a journey.
Unlike other mediums, theatre requires more than one person to exist together in the same space, for the same amount of time. It is a moment that is shared between at least two people: a performer and an audience member. An actor without an audience is just playing pretend. There’s an unspoken understanding amongst an audience, that they are in this together. They are putting themselves into the theatre-makers’ hands, for better or for worse. Their engagement, or lack of engagement, is palpable. Ever been in a theatre and all of a sudden a number of people begin coughing at once? Or you hear sniffing and crying from all around the audience? We know that people are more likely to laugh if others are laughing, and this is true for other emotional reactions. The audience is as connected to each other, as they may be to the actors on stage. Because each audience is made up of different people, who will all react with each other differently, and to the show differently, every theatrical experience is unique to itself. The actors will also find themselves affected by the connection with the audience, and that will (again, for better or worse) sometimes affect their performance and ability to transform the story. This makes theatre a special experience, as it is so ephemeral.
Perhaps this belongs less to theatre than to all good story-telling, but the way it works best in theatre is specific; the only other place it works as well, is in sports. Because theatre exists in a specific time and place, the conflict it requires to keep an audience engaged has to be immediate. A book can go away from a plot line, and come back to it, and still keep a reader turning a page, but a play needs to keep on track or risk losing an audiences’ interest. An audience can’t pause the play to catch up or go back, so clarity is important, and a play doesn’t have the time to slow down and explain everything. Also, that’s boring. What is exciting on stage is conflict with high stakes and a protagonist that may not win. Like a good hockey, football, baseball, soccer, basketball game, or really any other competitive sport, the exciting element is that there are multiple teams aiming to win something, and throughout the game, they’re chances of winning swing from ‘absolutely’ to ‘not gonna happen’. The more boring games are the ones where one team decimates another. We want to see the fight. This is the same on stage. We want to see characters fighting hard for something, but not easily getting it. If they don’t care about what they want, why should we? If they aren’t fighting for it, why should we cheer them on? If their antagonist (whoever or whatever that is) isn’t as equally compelling and fighting back, then it’s too easy. Fun fact, many competitive sports do not allow for ties; they know that the fans want to see a winner. I know there are theatre shows that don’t have much conflict, but chances are they are either not very interesting, or they use transformation and connection to the utmost, and that is what keeps an audience engaged.
Theatre is a special medium, and when it’s done well, it truly is magical. It allows us to connect to others and be transported. It goes beyond the everyday. It can be cathartic, it can be eye-opening, but to be any good, it needs transformation and connection, and to generally, have a good amount of conflict to keep us interested and engaged.