I go to see a play. House opens. I walk in. I’m essentially onstage. But there’s no one there. There are chairs off to my right. So I and everyone else entering the theater go to those chairs, pick the one that’s right for each of us. I sit down, open my program, glance at the stage, wait for the show to begin. It begins. There’s a play happening in front of me. And I’m bored out of my skull. This is in part because I think it’s a bad play. It’s well-acted, badly directed, and the design is entirely forgettable. But this is not why I’m bored, not really. I’m bored because all I can really focus on is one of the most basic theater-going principals, something we’ve all lived with our entire theater going and making lives: that gaping divide between the stage and the audience.
Why is it there?
And no, I’m not being flippant. Really think about it. Why is there still a divide between the stage and the audience? I guess the simple answer is, “Because there was always a divide. From the time of the Greeks to the contemporary world, it allows the audience to understand that this is a heightened world, a simulacrum–”
<shut it, scholar. step aside.>
That’s all well and fine, and I love tradition too. (Seriously. Ask my mom how I feel about Christmas traditions.) But I can’t for the life of me understand why we’re still keeping the audience separate from the play. Not that that’s what we’re trying to do, but that’s what it feels like. We live in an age where I can carry whole universes of entertainment around with me. At any time I can turn on my computer and have access to pretty much any song that’s ever been recorded. I can watch TV shows old and new, stream favorite movies at the drop of a hat and all while chatting with friends who are watching the choose your own adventure variety show that is YouTube.
Everything I want, whether it’s pure entertainment (yes, I’m looking at you, True Blood), or riveting, thought-provoking drama (RIP The Wire) is accessible via a barely 5 lb. machine that I can carry with my left arm. And if you know my left arm, you know that’s saying something. But I go into the theater and even if I’m sitting in the front row, I feel like the stage is a world away.
Now part of this is definitely connected to the fact that the way we receive stories as a technically-saturated society is changing radically and quickly because we are, in fact, surrounded by so much media wherever we go. And now I’m watching a play and I can’t get the close-up that eliminates the need for the long explanatory monologue, but that’s not what I’m asking for. The thing that keeps theater vibrant and relevant and dangerous is the fact that it’s happening live in front of you. Seems an obvious observation, but from the way plays are too often being produced today, you’d almost think it a revolutionary concept. In a world where you can essentially choose your own content, who wants to go to a play, be forced to sit in one place and feel like you’re being ignored because there’s an invisible fourth wall between you and the shit you’ve come to see?
Our age of instant, on-demand, DIY media has torn down the wall between audience and producer. It’s why even network television–especially network television–has been forced to innovate and take risks. But in the theater keep doing the same things in the same ways. Or we look for ridiculous answers to distract the audience from realizing that they’re bored.
“Let’s design elaborate, moving scenery that appears to move on its own. And throw in some video while we’re at it!”
<n.b. all you automation and video folks out there, I’m not decrying what you do. rather, I’m pointing out how directors seem to love to throw up smoke screens to disguise really long (and usually unnecessary) set changes. guess what. it’s a dodge. we’re still out here, still bored, still feeling left out of the party.>
My idea then: innovate by getting back to basics. The first theater was some Neanderthal creating shadow creatures on the cave wall and doing all the voices. That is the quintessential live, communal, storytelling experience–It’s why ghost stories at sleepovers are still popular. (They are, aren’t they?) And what do these two events have in common? No audience, no stage. It’s all one. Invite them in, make them a part of it. And I’m not talking about crazy experimental plays, nor am I saying that every play should include direct audience participation if only because the experimental, environmental world is already doing that. No, let’s do conventional plays in unconventional ways.
My friends at Chalk Rep in Los Angeles are already doing this (though I would challenge them to go further with it).
For “We declare you a terrorost…” at SPF 2009, we redirected the audience away from the door that clearly led to the theater. Instead they were greeted by dour-looking, severely dressed individuals who communicated only with rudimentary gestures to tell the audience where to go, and before they knew what was going on, they were onstage, surrounded by the characters they were about to follow for the next 75 minutes and being viewed by their fellow audience members who had just gone through a similar experience and were now reverted to role of spectator.* (I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that watching the audience cross that stage wasn’t my favorite part of the night.) Ultimately, the audience ended up where they expected to: with that gaping chasm between them and the stage, but I really feel that they came at the play differently for having had to cross that gap.
So don’t close up the wall with our English dead. Tear it down I say. Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone. And you too, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this (fourth) wall.
*I have to thank Niegel Smith for coming up with the alternate entrance idea. He’d probably try to deflect and say it was the team’s idea, but first and foremost it was his. I didn’t realize at the time just how much of a revolution he was stirring up inside me.