The Pomp of Theatre

The other day, while extolling the virtues of Los Angeles theatre, the conversation turned to the pomp of theatre, the wave of anticipation and excitement that comes upon entering the edifice prior to performance. As was pointed out in this conversation, walking into the Pantages provides an entirely different feeling from entering one of the hundreds of intimate theatres in Los Angeles. It was a point noted, and one that bears scrutiny. Shakespeare even wrote of the anticipation when in Hamlet, the players come to court.

 Granted, walking in to the Pantages tickles the imagination, the cacophony of visual stimulus builds the artistic pheromones and prepares us, the audience, to be launched upon some incredible journey.

 Yet, if truth be told, none of those visuals have anything to do with the presentation upon the stage. They are just decorations and marketing tools created to get us to a frame of mind. Marketing and setting the mood for a play are certainly important elements in bringing the audience to that moment where we suspend disbelief and embrace the life we have come to see. But not till the curtain rises are we actually transported to the world upon the stage.

 This is much like going on a trip to Paris.  The excitement is certainly there when we look through the brochures, is heightened as we head to the airport, leaving us giggly on the plane, but not till we land in France are we really in the adventure. So to it goes with theatre.

 Going back to those marquis and lobby displays in theatre.  Those are designed to do exactly what the travel brochure does, wet our appetite for the show we about to see. The bigger and more elaborate, the more our attention is brought to focus on the experience the producers would like us to have. That’s wonderful, and great to see, but is it how we should judge the value of our theatre experience?

 Smaller venues are certainly at a disadvantage. After all, who has not marveled at the architectural embellishments at the Pantages, or the chandelier and grandness of the Ahmenson? But these are no more a part of the show, than the theme restaurant at LAX.

 How does a small theatre with a limited budget strive to compete in the pre-show extravaganza? There are many tricks – starting the play before the play, redecorating the lobby to mimic the stage, music reflective of the show we’re about to see, all are effective, but the most important element to all of this is left to be burdened by us the audience – our willingness to be transported.

 This is not an easy task. We all have the distractions of our lives, our work, our families, each moment of our day piled upon our shoulder. We carry this load wherever we go and at times it can be oppressive. But one of the functions of theatre is to visit worlds in which we do not really live. And to get there, we must try to make the journey. We must be willing to look upon a stage and not see the box that’s supposed to be a bed, but see the bed. It’s that simple.

 Undoubtedly the journey is easier if we are lulled into that moment with trickery, or if we have high expectation, but if we have the burden of our lives compounded with questionable neighborhoods and dicey buildings, then we must consciously be ready to be there. That is the burden of the small theatre audience. We must be willing and ready and trying to be a part of the experience. If we are, the results are magical. If we give as much as we expect, we will be handsomely rewarded. If we compare the door and say this is no Pantages, we will get exactly what we deserve.

 The collaboration that we know as theatre requires all to participate – the writer, the designers, the director, the producer, the actor, but the most important element is us the audience. Without us, all their efforts are produced in a vacuum. If pomp is essential, than let it be from within.  There is always a more imposing theatre, a grander set, more involved posters and decoration, but in the end, as Shakespeare says in Hamlet, Act II, scene ii, “… the play’s the thing.”

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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