So Why Do You Go to Theatre

New discussion. New insights. 

We thought Janet had a good idea in her recent comment on our latest discussion ‘Attendance Is Declining: Tell Us Why’.

Given the fact that it costs time and money to see a play, add that it might mean the hassle of Metro inaccessibility or sitting in traffic jams, Janet wonders why we brave all of that to see a play when we could instead be seeing a local movie, chatting with friends, or just relaxing at home.

Good question.  So here’s a brand new discussion.  Tell us what motivates you to go, and maybe add two things:  how often you attend in a 3 month period and which productions you are looking forward to seeing this month (see our list in Onstage Now).

Lorraine Treanor About Lorraine Treanor

Lorraine Treanor has been editor of DC Theatre Scene since 2006. She has produced plays and concerts in her hometown of Chicago, and twice in the Capital Fringe festival. Her daughter Nina Norris is an artist working in Chicago. Life's a blast because she shares it with writer Tim Treanor.


  1. As an artist myself, I feel like one aspect that is often left out of this conversation is the scientific effects of the performing arts. I think it is easy to enjoy the idea that what we experience when we see a show is something so intimate and unique as to be unquantifiable or intangible. It’s a romantic and beautiful notion, but also one that I find is often capable of more harm than good.

    I could speak at length on the subject, but the gist of it is this: we know now that emotional intelligence and divergent thinking (aka thinking outside of the box) are innate human abilities, but much like the muscles on our body, they must be exercised and developed if they are to grow strong. The performing arts help to develop and refine these forms of intelligence. 

    On one level this is obvious. If you ask someone whether reading and seeing the work of Shakespeare is capable of deepening their understanding of the human experience, they will likely answer “yes.” And yet, we often forget that this is true. Or, even if we don’t forget this, we devalue such understanding as being merely pleasure. In truth, emotional intelligence is an incredibly useful tool that is often intrinsic to both personal and professional success.  

    Often when we talk about thinking or intelligence, we’re discussing a process that only involves half of our brain. We think of thinking as a boring or purely analytical process. When we are engaged in a story, we are having an aesthetic learning experience – more of our brain is awake and stirring. We are forming connections, thoughts, opinions and questions. 

    Thanks to the relatively new technology of fMRI’s, we are beginning to learn a lot more about the concrete realities of emotional intelligence, catharsis, and the nature of creativity. The next 15 years should yield some very tangible proof about the use and necessity of art. While I hope that people never lose their personal indescribably magical experiences with the performing arts, I believe I will live to see a day quite soon when attempting to dismiss the arts will be as foolish as not believing in gravity.

  2. As a kid, our family could only afford the 55 cent Sunday matinees in the top balcony. But, it was amazing to see famous stars in fabulous New York productions–without amplification. Theater appreciation started early.

    In Washington, we’re particularly impressed by the richness of the theatre scene. Drama, comedy, musicals, Shakespeare, world premiers, traditional, and cutting edge. This variety is constantly stimulating. Also, there is an intimacy in most of the theaters here which allows you to experience the acting in a way that makes movies seem flat and distant.

    May’s schedule: Communicating Doors (Silver Spring Stage), The Happy Time (Signature), The School for Scandal (Folger), David in Light & Shadow (Theater J), The History Boys (Studio), and The Visit (Signature). Should be a good month.

  3. Well, it seems like we have a mix of performers and audience, both of which are critical elements to keeping live theater going. I hope that some lurkers are inspired to see more theater or to encourage others to feel the true power of live theater. As much as I love movies, it just isn’t nearly as gripping and powerful to me as live theater.

    And I did not list my upcoming theater in my first post. For the rest of this month we will be seeing PGLT’s STEEL MAGNOLIAS, Toby’s JOSEPH AND THE AMAZING TECHNICOLOR DREAMCOAT, ImaginationStage’s LOOKING FOR ROBERTO CLEMENTE and our Signature subscription’s to THE HAPPY TIME and THE VISIT.

  4. Many Decades ago – Pre Kennedy Center and Shady Grove Music Fair (who remembers that?) I was heavily involved in high school theatre and worked part time for Ben Lust Theatrical Supply Company. I participated in every aspect of theater EXCEPT acting (I can’t stand makeup). On the income of a Saturday soda jerk at Peoples Drug Stores I was able to attend every single professional production in this town. As a result I became addicted to theatre. When my mother bought me my first subscription to the Arena, the box office tried to talk her out of buying it – they couldn’t believe a high school student would actually want to go to the theatre.

    When the time came to go to college, I had two alternatives: Science and Engineering or Theatre. I decided to study science and engineering (in the days of slide rules). I told myself that if I flunked out, I could always come back to DC and major in theatre under Father Hartke. Well, I never flunked out, so since then I have been limited to being a “professional audience member”

    Once I was no longer constrained by non-theatre loving wives, I have dedicated myself to being one of the “usual suspects” at TicketPlace and PWYC performances.

  5. Well, speaking of Andrew Long’s performance in Frozen, I have to say that was the most amazing performance I’ve ever seen. It will stick in my memory and will be hard to top. And to think I didn’t want to see it because of the subject matter! (Thank you, Cheryl for inviting me to come along with you guys that day.)

    In my earlier post, I forgot to mention the upcoming plays I want to see. The only play I have a ticket in hand for is The Visit. Others I would like to see are both the Shakespere plays and both of the Arthur Miller plays at Arena, which I hear are superb.

  6. It seems like an easy question, yet how can I put into words the effect theatre has on me? Every aspect of a production – story, acting, lights, sound, design, costumes – thrill me when it pulls together into a cohesive vision. It is a unique art form that can entertain, question, or move. It can be risky and daring; painfully true or joyfully whimsy. And it all plays out live in front of you in all it’s raw energy. And, when you see it – it’s a once-in-a-lifetime event. That production won’t ever be performed in that exact way again – people/place/timing. It’s not a performance that is frozen on celluloid. If you miss a show, you MISS it! And all you can do is lament your loss. And that drives me to try to see as much as I can – even if some disappoint, most are memorable, while a few are true gems to be cherised forever. To think back on seeing Cherry Jones in Doubt; Christine Ebersole and Mary Louise Wilson in Grey Gardens; Andrew Long in Frozen; Nancy Robinette in Souvenir; Marc Kudish in Witches of Eastwick! And History Boys at Studio was better than I saw on Broadway. Just a tiny few examples of some great moments I’ve seen on stage that I wouldn’t have wanted to miss for anything. I can’t tell you how sad I get when there is a show I so want to see but don’t get a chance before it closes. If I miss a movie premiere, I’ll catch it on video. Not so with theatre, and so, I make as much time as possible and go as often as possible, and usher as often as possible to see as much as possible. Coming up I’m looking forward to Happy Time and The Visit at Signature; View from the Bridge at Arena; Measure for Pleasure at Woolly; and Antony & Cleopatra at Shakespeare. And am hoping I can find time for Intimate Apparel at Atlas; These Shining Lives at Center Stage; and Translations at Church Street. I am so glad to live in a city with so much truly terrific theatre to offer!

  7. Paula Y. Bickham says:

    Why do I go to the theatre? There is simply something so facinating about seeing people act out characters live. It is natural. It is truly an art that can be mastered, but it requires patience and dedication. The whole process of production is long and drawn out. Filmography does not move me so. In filmography the “bloopers” can be edited, and the movie goer or TV viewer has no idea how many retakes had to be done. I told my brother one day that I periodically turn on my TV just to make sure it works. In live theatre there is little room for bloopers. And if there is a blooper or two, it keeps things for real – reminding us that humans do indeed err. From the actor to the light, sound, and set designers, to costumers and hair stylists, and the whole production team (can’t find a better word at the moment) the need to be a coordinated effort is truly astounding. This is something that goes public, bears it all, is out in the open – so the challenge is everyone involved in giving it their all.

    What will I see in May? “Richard III”, at Tapestry Theatre; “A Few Good Men”, at Zimfira Stage; and “Antony and Cleopatra” at Harmon Hall.

  8. Jessica says:

    I love the theatre. I can’t NOT go. There is nothing like watching actors right there in front of you turn into other characters and transporting you into their world for a while. My love of theatre has lead me to actually taking some acting classes myself and I love it. I don’t know if I have any talent, but it’s not about that. As my teacher said, you get bitten by the acting bug, I think I have. This is a direct result of going to see plays and getting just about addidicted to it.
    I think I’ve been to 2 or plays in the last 3 months. If I had the money, I would go all of the time. Looking ahead, I want to go to see “Intimate Aparrels,” and, if I can budget it, “Antony and Cleopatra.” I do wish tickets were a bit more affordable. Thank goodness for ticketplace and “pay-what-you-can” evenings.

  9. Terry, That’s a great story about your first experience seeing a movie after having been exposed to live theatre.

  10. My parents took me to plays at a young age. I absolutely loved seeing live people on stage and the lighting effects enchanted me. The first time I saw a movie in a theater (The Sound of Music), I had a hissy fit. I kept asking where the people were. I was crying over the disappointment. Live theater has always been my love.

    I go to plays to be transported to another place or time, or dimension. I go to feel, to be moved, sometimes to laugh. I’ve seen some very good shows over the years, but Mary’s Wedding (H Street) has remained my favorite theater experience.

  11. Bill and Louisa Newlin says:

    We go to live theatre because there is nothing more thrilling than seeing the fruits of the collaboration between author, producer, director, actors and the production team (set, costume, light and sound) — and live audience. When it really works it is absolutely magical; even when only parts of it work it is exciting.

    Since Feb 1 we have seen 17 theatrical performance, but that includes two in New York and it includes Tamerlano.

    In what remains of May (we will be out of town a lot so the theatre list is thin) we have tickets for Ant. & Cleo, School for Scandal, History Boys, Internationalist, Electra and Clouds (by Aristophones, put on by Hart Middle School in Anacostia in a version they have spent months translating into their own vernacular)!

    As is clear from the above we get great pleasure from Theatre in Washington and from where we sit attendance does not seem to be declining — but if you’re counting, you are probably right.

    Thanks very much for DC Theatre Scene.

    Regards, Bill and Louisa Newlin

  12. Barbara says:

    I believe that I’m being accurate when I say that I’m close to being obsessed with the theater. It pretty much started in 1961 when I was a teenager and moved to Virginia, with my parents. I saw “Music Man” advertised in the paper – it was going to play at the National Theatre. I saw it along with my sister and I was hooked, so was she. We started going to Arena Stage and saw “The Great White Hope” with Jane Alexander and James Earl Jones. We also went to New York (with her high school class) and saw some plays – one was the Arthur Miller play, “After the Fall” presumably based on his relationship/marriage to Marilyn Monroe. I believe that theater is an escape from everyday activities and I like “to be taken away from it all.”

    I saw probably twelve plays in April 2008 – three of those were in New York City, “Spring Awakening,” “Gypsy,” and “August: Osage County.” I love to see good productions of musicals (“Jersey Boys” and good dramatic productions, (“August: Osage County).” In May I look forward to seeing “Boeing, Boeing” in New York and “In the Heights” in New York. I’m also looking forward to seeing “Camelot” on PBS on May 8 (starring Marc Kudisch), “Broadway Up Close and Personal” at the Kennedy Center (May 14), “The Visit” at Signature with Chita Riviera and George Hearn, “Anthony and Cleopatra,” “1776,” “History Boys,” “Julius Caesar,” and “Crumble.” I just, simply put, love going to the theater.

  13. Why do I go? Because I am addicted to theater. I love the theater. I have the “bug” in my blood, but not so bad that I need to do it beyond all need. If so, then I’d be a professional performer. But I can’t not do it. So, I have a better paying day job and I do community theater. I love performing, directing and producing live theater. And I attend because I love to see it performed and love to get new ideas, see what other people do, how they produce this art that I love. I’m the horrible one looking at the lights during a big moment on stage, or the person watching how the crew resets a scene during a scene change, or watching the actor on stage left when the main actor is stage right.

    One of the things that I love the most is seeing a truly great production of something that I’d seen before. Even better when the production is better than the production I’ve already seen (and possibly loved). I love new theater, but I like good theater more. I would much rather see a good production of an old chestnut than a mediocre production of something new and fresh. Likewise, I would rather see a good production of a new piece (say Signature’s ONE RED FLOWER, Studio’s SOUVENIR, or Round House’s A YEAR WITH FROG AND TOAD) than a tired version of an old favorite.

    For me, I like a mix of stories that I know and ones that I don’t. I love to have one or two familiar shows out of a season of 5-7 shows. That’s a great balance. I get to see at least one production where I can compare the artistry of the artistic designers and performers against what I already know. I can concentrate on different aspects of the show besides just the story or plot and *REALLY EXPERIENCE* theater and all parts of it.

  14. Hi. At its best, live theatre is magic. I seek out these wonderful magicians who transport me into their fantasy world. It makes me a “fly on the wall” and maybe even a bit of a voyeur. Good movies and TV shows are magic too, but it’s not live. So that’s why I go to the theatre. When i attend a play that I didn’t enjoy, it makes me a little sad because I know that all the people put their hearts into acting and producing the play. I love to walk out of a play and say to myself” Yes. That’s why I go to the theatre” Most recently such a play/musical was Kiss of the Spider Woman at Signature Theatre. Of course a person’s theatre experience can depend on what kind of day he or she had.

    At the top of the list of shows I’ve seen that I remember that I loved are: The Cripple of Inishnaan at Studio, Copenhagen and Streetcar Named Desire at the Kennedy Center, This Lime Tree Bower by Scena Theatre and Martha, Josie and the Chinese Elvis at Wooly Mammoth.
    There are many others that are I put in a tier just below those. Too numerous to mention. And the third tier are plays or musicals that I appreciated because of the excellence of the production, but didn’t care for the story or some other thing. I call that the still worthwhile and glad I went. In the negative range, there are things that were too much of a trifle or that I had a visceral dislike. Fortunately, there aren’t too many of those type experiences due to the high quality of theater in this area.



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