Theatre Keeps Us Human

Why is theatre such a different experience than going to a movie? After all, it’s ostensibly the same genre. It certainly has the same elements and many of the artists move easily between the two. Perhaps it has more to do with expectations than it does with the art itself.

At it’s very core, going to see a play is a personal experience. It’s a commitment by us the audience to open our hearts and minds to whatever scene is about to unfold before us. Just as importantly, in most cases we the audience are a part of the play. While there is the ever-present 4th wall, there is a conscious awareness on both sides that the other exists.

No matter how involved an actor is in a scene, there is always some part of him that recognizes he is not alone. In the most profound elicitations of divine intervention, in the most isolated possible moments, an actor is aware that you are there. We as the audience may with abandon buy a character, a scene, a situation, a place, but we are always aware that we are watching a play.

Before we draw the ire of the purest, let us concede that on rare occasion, there are moments of transcendence, but on a whole, in the best moments of theatre, we are with the consciousness of all concerned that it is a play. Thus, we voluntarily step into the scene and participate as if we were a part. The actors identify us in whatever form they need to make the scene organic.

This produces a contract, a tacit agreement between audience and artist. We agree to open our spiritual self to the possibilities before us. Stepping into a theatre we suspend our preconceptions wash away our veneers of beliefs and at least initially don the mantle of the universe in which we have entered.

How we react to the play, the scene, the moment, is in part the responsibility of the artist to support our journey, and part our own responsibility to keep the portal open, to set aside the anachronistic moments, the slips of tongue and physical limitations. We are required to focus and follow and be involved in the moment.

Should the artist fail, we begin to ask questions, challenge the world of the stage, or begin to argue in our heads as to the merit of the scene. Should we fail, allow our attention to falter, we disconnect, we note what those around us are wearing, or we look at our watches, or scan the grid. And those on stage feel it. So in a very real way, we the audience are a part of the play. We have an organic intimate involvement and it is precisely for that experience we go to see live theatre.

Film or Television, on the other hand is a witnessed experience. We may come to the experience in much the same manner, prepared to live in the world we are about to witness, but no matter the effort by the artists, we the audience are never a part of that world. At best we believe it, but we are merely witnesses.

That is an extraordinary difference. It is the active engagement, the conscious participation, and hence an emotional cost that might only be akin to our most intimate moments. We as the audience potentially extend as much emotional and spiritual conviction as any that are on the stage. So we can and often have a great deal of trepidation about seeing a new play. In a way it’s not entirely dissimilar from the first time we take off our cloths in front of a new lover. We are anxious, anticipatory, excited and fearful all at the same time. That is the vulnerability of seeing a new play. And to extend the metaphor a tad further, in our core, if we do not have the emotional or spiritual foreplay to bring us to the climax of the play, we walk away disappointed.

Film and Television are safe, we may feel that we don’t like a movie or show, but how often do we see a failed moment as unfulfilling, or leaving us with an itch that has to be scratched. These moments can be so precious that many would rather not touch it. Many don’t, on a sub-conscious level want to leave themselves that vulnerable. Many, would rather dip there toes into the voyeuristic world of film and television, where they can watch intimacy, but don’t have to be touched by it as closely as does happen on a stage.

Many of the grand tragedies in our world, occur because civilization can often be dehumanizing. When people become targets, they are not seen as humans, they are seen as collateral. Children murdered are not because of evil, the act is because the intensity of despair has so outweighed humility that the consequences are irrelevant. Live theatre can and does change that. The intimacy that is exchanged is not a substitute for human contact, it is an extension of that experience.

Theatre has endured and developed consistently since the beginning of communication. It has done so because it does touch so close. A brilliant theatrical moment can live a lifetime, can change how we see the world and can change what we’re willing to do to be a part of that change.

This comes at a dear price, it costs us the potential of self doubt, self humiliation and internal conflict. What it pays, is the rejuvenation of our souls. Those are pretty big stakes.

About Peter Finlayson

Peter Finlayson is the Founder, Publisher and Editor-in-chief of FootLights magazine and While working on a prelaw program at the University of Michigan, he happily got involved with the theatre program. Much to his mother’s chagrin, law school never happened, but in a career spanning more than 4 decades, Peter has performed, directed or designed more than 150 productions. In his spare time, he is working on a new play. You can follow him on Twitter @Thtrdog .

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