Tuesday, February 5, 2013

What Is It About Theatre?

This question has been asked by many people many times on line and off since probably before I was born, but it was on my mind as I drove home from seeing A Raisin In The Sun this evening.

Now I HAVE felt a profound connection with film as an art form.  Film has incredibly democratized access to some of the best actors in the world.  If I was living a hundred years ago I would probably never see John Barrymore, but Millions of people can see Phillip Seymour Hoffman or Meryl Streep.  Even with all the moaning about how terrible movies are today (blah blah blah) you can see some really great films with some really incredible performances most every day of the year, and for a pretty reasonable price.

But, but, but.... there IS something special about theatre.  There is something different.  The film version is quite excellent and available any time.  Yet the immediacy, the connection, is ... different.  The fact that those people are right there in the room with you, taking that journey with you... I don't know.  I guess I was quite affected by the show, and particularly Walter Lee Younger.  I connected with his flaws and his failure, as well as his pride, in a way I never have with the film.  And it's not that he was a better actor than Sidney Poitier.  He was great of course.  All the performances were really spot on.  The set was well realized and intelligent.  The costumes (and the hair!) were great.  But it wasn't that it was "better" it was that it was "different."  It was real, it was right there.

The similacrum that theatre provides is both more realistic and less realistic than a movie.  Movies can get everything right.  The sets can be more realistic.  The violence and scale of events can be portrayed incredibly well (Into a thousand parts divide one man?  Pfft, just hire a thousand men).  Even the tiniest error or imperfection can disturb the illusion.  Part of the exchange the audience makes is that they be brought fully into the world and that it's detail is realized.

In theatre, those details become so much less important.  The performances must be strong, but you are looking at people in a room with you.  Walls break off, table lamps illuminate with the power of stage lights, swords are rubber (or often not even swords) but that's not important.  If you announce the stick you're holding is Excalibur, the audience will go with it, because that's what theatre demands.  Because when you sit down you must participate in the world.  They play must "On your imaginary forces work."  Not "work on" as in perform work on, but "work on" as in "my car works on gas."  The audiences imagination is the fuel that makes the performance move forward.  And in fact, one thing this production did that I really quite liked, was that it used lighting effects to highlight certain intense scenes and monologues in a particularly unrealistic way.  This "heightened unreality" produced an interesting effect in that it was clear we were seeing the internal more than the external.  The emotion rather than the realism of the scene.  That is something that simply wouldn't work in a movie.  It would come across as forced, manipulative, and mawkish.  But on stage, it was quite effective.

But live theatre is also more real too.  Movies are incredible, but ultimately, good movies are about character, and about connecting on a human level with the audience.  And that is something that is just fundamentally different in a play.  No matter how good the performance, movies are simply "less real" because you are looking at a screen.  If someone trips on a power cord the magic dies.  Being in the room with actors as they take that journey, breathing the same air, looking at their eyes... it enables a more real, more human connection.

And, of course... the role is alive, the play is alive.  The movie, it is finished, but not the play.  Never the play.

I guess I just felt the contrast rather keenly tonight.  I know that I would go out and see this exact same piece again by another group in a couple years because it's just great theatre.  But I have no particular desire to re-watch the film.

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