The next time someone asks “Why should I go to the theatre?” send them this.
[Editor’s intro: A lot can happen over coffee in Adams Morgan. It was to be just a meet-up to see whether DC writer Gary Tischler might have time to do some pieces for us. But notes were set aside. My coffee got cold, then forgotten altogether as Gary talked about the experience of live performance and why, in an age of comfy at-home entertainment, so many of us choose to sit in a darkened theater. He’s re-created it here in this straight-from-the-heart piece. I can think of no better way for you to get to know our newest writer.]
Over the past ten years or so, I’ve noticed things. Writers are supposed to do that.
I’ve noticed that I see more and more people on their cell phones, outside on the sidewalk in front of our house, in restaurants, on buses, at airports, in parks, in cars and on their way home. The first time that became obvious to me was on an afternoon when I saw about ten people walking on our street. Four of them were walking their dogs, nine of them were on their cell phone and one of them was saying “I’m only a half a block away. See you soon.”
Hand in hand with that, you see the commercials in which all the entertainment, the daily life stuff, the popular culture, the entertainment, the communication in our life is being poured into our phones and computers. There is, it appears, an app for everything.
The other thing I’ve noticed, being a writer about theater, is that there appears to be more people going to the theater, to plays, musicals, one-person shows, new plays, old plays, kid’s plays and strange, dark plays. Whatever there is, in whatever venue, there are usually people there, often, enough to fill the theater. In short, there is an audience, we the people.
There’s no connection between the two observations except for one. If you want to see a play, you have to shut off your cell phone, BlackBerry™, iPhone™ or whatever. When the lights go dim, you dim the phone lights. We are left only with ourselves, the actors in the play, and our beating hearts.
Like the furtive corners of the city where smokers gather to smoke, the theater – where the play’s the thing – may be the only place where you can escape the sound of ring tones.
But I doubt that’s the only reason people are going to the theater, whether it’s Shakespeare, a musical revival, the fringes of the fringe, the dark boogies on contemporary maladies by new playwrights.
I think that today especially, people—old people, young people, middle class people, rich people, people who have a job and people who don’t, men and women, culture buffs and story lovers—crave authenticity.
And the theater, more than anything else, offers authenticity in a way that no other delivery system of entertainment and culture does. So-called reality shows aren’t real, movies are the same, scene by scene, line by line, every time you see them, and the encyclopedic Internet with all of its YouTube and fidgety and viral videos is a rabbit hole on a screen.
You can’t really reach out and touch someone, not by phone, not on the net, not on a movie screen or a flat screen.
I think what makes theater and plays authentic is that you don’t know what’s going to happen, because it’s never the same, because it’s right in front of you, or off to the side, or below, or however the proceedings are configured. It’s authentic because we know it’s real, a true thing, that’s achieved entirely by artifice, by makeup, borrowed or specially made clothing, by light and darkness, by tricks of the trade, and gifts of the arts and artist, these our players and our directors, costume designers, prop folks, and foremost, our playwright.
The thing about a play is that it disappears even as we watch, engage, listen, feel, are shocked (or not), laugh (or not), give in to the rapture, (or not), are transported (or not). By we, I mean you and me and our fellow companions, the rest of the audience, which makes all the difference.
Actors will tell you this over and over: every night, matinee or whatever is different because there are different people in the audience. Every performance, however set in stone, is also a do over, an opportunity to do more, a chance for atonement or triumph, a chance to illuminate further.
And here is what else that happens: every single performance, whether it’s Hair, or Macbeth, or a one-act in a basement, is gone the minute, the second it’s over, poofed with the last bow. There is no way to reconstruct it, take home the book, or play the video to get what you’ve just experienced. It’s gone.
Somehow, that basic fact eluded me, or I gave it no mind, until a few years back when I was interviewing Joy Zinoman, the recently retired artistic director and founder of the Studio Theatre where, in its various venues, I had spent an inordinate amount of time seeing plays. As we talked, individual plays popped into my head, names of actors and actresses, scenes, and occasions. Plays on stage are about remembering, they live in our hearts and minds, which they’ve captured in the performance.
Even if we’re critics, we are also keepers of the flame, story-tellers around an intellectual campfire, “Blazing Saddles” not withstanding. It reminds of the scene from the movie version of “Fahrenheit 450”, in which people walk around in a snowy forest, reciting verbatim lines from literature, keeping books alive, a job market that may yet be revived.
People talk about movies, and viral videos and last night’s episode of “The Event” or, lordy, what Bristol did on “Dancing with the Stars”. But what happens in the theater is visceral and often important. Simply put, we hear our own longings in the poetic yearnings of Juliet, and fear for them both and are swept away by them, just as the repetitive mouthings of David Mamet’s characters separate the cacophony and verbal energy of the vocal noise of our daily streets.
A play is a shared thing—shared by all those who make it happen, but also those in attendance. On the good and great nights, something electric happens, theater becomes alchemy and we know it deep down. We know too that in spite of all the rehearsals, the craft, the moving forward, that theater is only a forgotten line, a blackout, a technical goof away from turning a tragedy into a comedy, which is of course a tragedy. It’s dangerous up there and in there; it’s a high-wire act. In old plays renewed, we expect Richard III to tell us his schemes, but we don’t expect him to be so like us, like someone from a blog, revealing his identity.
There was a full house at the oft-called cutting edge Woolly Mammoth Theater for a recent performance of The House of Gold, a new play which, in ways shocking and puzzling, disconcerting and disorienting, dealt with, among other things, the sensational and still unsolved murder of a six-year-old beauty pageant contestant and the American penchant for morbid and unquenchable interest in celebrity and the darkest depths of violence.
It was plain that I wasn’t the only one feeling the heat of discomfort. Because the writer and designers went at the subject with all the panache of a butcher wielding a cleaver, there was a kind of willingness to jump into a dark well by way of startling casting, skewed and off-kilter Caligari-like design. In the theater, there’s no promise of a road map, just ask anybody that’s ever been involved with staging Titus Andronicus.
A few days earlier, I’d gone to the opening night of Oklahoma!, the jump-start of a new Arena Stage era in its gorgeous glass-and-wood, three-theater space, at the Fichandler. This was in the nature of an Event, but what happened when you sat down in familiar surroundings was that sweet mysterious nature of why we go to the theater.
House lights muted, in the semi-dark, we heard Curly, the big-striding flat-plains cowboy, before we saw him, singing “Oh, what a beautiful morning, oh what a beautiful day.” The voice was so charged, so brimming with confidence and optimism, the sheer joy of taking the first breath of the day that it carried you with it, away from the morning headlines, the bills, and the whatever-ails-you. Nicholas Rodriguez, the chin-out Hispanic actor had us before we ever saw him strut on the stages, court the girl, sass the aunt, confront the bully, give up his cowboy ways. He had us, oh, just about at “Oh, what..”
These things happen in the theater pretty much all the time, or at least the expectations is there always. They are as true as a prayer that asks for nothing of God, containing only the hope of a hearing.
There is no app for that.