Updated: Feb 13, 2019
It doesn’t matter where you went to school –you know how theatre kids are. Especially musical theatre kids. They’re singing all the time, they know how many minutes there are in a year, they bring up weird and unnecessary trivia in American History classes… theatre kids (I say this with absolute love and fondness) are just like that.
Outside of the culture that exists between actors and techies alike, what makes the theatre so special anyway?
I mean, after all, we live in a world where you can whip out your laptop in bed and watch whatever you want. Books can be found as PDFs online and read at ease. Why the hell should you go out of your way to watch people run around in tacky costumes and recite lines that their mouths have essentially made routine?
Presence. That is the only thing that the theatre has compared to its competitors.
With other forms of entertainment and media, there is always a very concrete degree of separation. For movies and television shows, you are separated by a screen and the editing decisions. You cannot sit and decide which character you want to look at, because the shots keep changing. You are given a new set of eyes with every scene, cut, and act. The screen can draw you in with music and intimate close ups, intriguing wide shots, and detailed macro-shots, but the world lives behind a screen and everything has already happened. You can rewind, fast forward, and pause. You needn’t be present to enjoy a film.
The same goes with books. The degree of separation is physical. Everything is written, and all you have to do is read. You can flip back a page, flip over, restart, and stop reading. This story exists and continues to do so even when you don’t want to experience it. Furthermore, the action lies within the imagination. You can imagine and reimagine any scene you’d like! You have complete creative freedom with how you interpret a text, but you cannot physically be with your interpretation.
The theatre (I include performing arts and dance to be in this bubble) is the only art form that places an emphasis on presence. While the story unravels in front of you, you must breathe the same air as the actors onstage. You cannot pause it. You cannot flip back a page. You must exist with the piece of theatre that is happening in front of you. It is compelling, emotional, and powerful.
That being said, theatre is meant to be an experience. When Aristotle outlined catharsis (the purging of emotions such as pity and fear) and his interpretation of tragedy in Poetics, he understood that even when theatre was being used as a vehicle for morale and relationships to the universe, that its effectiveness resided in the experiential aspect of the medium.
This raises the question that I’ve been pondering a lot recently: are we paying enough attention to that?
So many actors are openly selfish about snagging roles and wanting to be the next big thing. I can’t tell if it’s bigotry or a massive appreciation for the craft (or even if the bigotry fuels the appreciation of the craft! O, what a piece of work is man…)
When we create theatre, are we really paying enough attention to experience? In auditions, many actors have this “the best actor gets the lead” mentality. Playwrights want to create the next big thing. Directors become control freaks.
Theatre people look too far inward. They want to impress the audience rather than entice them. Why don’t we value captivation over interpretation?
I blame the mindset of modern first-world countries. We are always in a rush, climbing up business ladders and scrambling to pay off student debt. There’s such a peculiar pressure to make a name for ourselves that it has leaked into an art form intended to provide an escape from that. Theatre is ultimately a reflection of our mindsets, cultures, and societies. Playwrights write by absorbing what is around them, directors interpret using what is most readily available in memory, and actors bring these characters to life with the experiences they’ve had in reality. Art imitates life imitates art.
We don’t allow ourselves to participate in catharsis. Are we too stressed and self-absorbed to sit down and experience a story? A story with lights, music that soars across the auditorium, a lonely soul standing on an empty platform with nothing but a suitcase and umbrella in hand… in a time that we need theatre the most, we are neglecting it. When we can relate and identify with these characters the most, why do we turn away from them? We have the power to create stories that are felt within and without us, make us weep for people we have never met, and leave us with the sensations of being breathless or other times beaming.
We need the space to practice catharsis. If we continue to bottle up our feelings, we will burst. And while movies and books may offer this sensation, it is never more prevalent than when we simultaneously experience emotions with another person. The synchronous communication between actor and audience member alongside the experience of receiving new information in real time is entirely unique to what the theatre is.
So, the next time a theatre kid bitches about not being warmed up or wishes Baltimore a good morning, look past the exterior. This is a child who has probably been moved intensely by the theatre, and allows themselves to engage in catharsis. They find solace in an art form that “has been dying for 4,000 years [yet] has never succumbed.” And maybe, just maybe, they’ll be one of the artists that revolutionizes the crisis of the modern theatre and the musical adaptation epidemic that has been sweeping Broadway.
Or, they’re being obnoxious (but more often than not, it's the former).