Live Theater: The Forgotten Experience

During my senior year of High School, I played Otto Frank, Anne’s father, in a production of Anne Frank.  It wasn’t the greatest production ever.  The whole cast stumbled through the show with ridiculous German accents.  (Never mind that half the cast was supposed to be Dutch).  Otto and his wife shared a pullout couch with their eldest daughter, while Anne’s diary was read by a ghost-Anne that randomly appeared and looked nothing like the actress playing Anne.  But the part I will never forget was the second night of the three-night run.  The principal of the school was sitting in the front row when our pullout couch got stuck, partially open, in the middle of a scene change.  

In the darkness on stage, confusion raged as the director and both crew hands rushed to try and fix it.  It was my job to cue the stage manager with two loud knocks to bring up the lights. Well, she obviously heard something.  The stage was washed with light as three actors and three crewmembers tried to sort out the bed.  We all froze.  I looked at the crewmembers, did my best to stay in character, and said the first thing I thought Otto would say: “Who are you?  Are you zhe Nazis?”  The crowd burst into laughter and the stage went dark again.  It was perhaps the best laugh any production of Anne Frank had ever received, and likely ever will.  

That night, with jokes swirling from those who assisted in the uproarious laughter, I went home and watched my then favorite movie Dogma for about the one-hundredth time—and it was exactly the same.  The film hadn’t recognized the moment I had, the actors hadn’t fed off of the awkward emotions left hanging in the air.  Nope, Kevin Smith’s dialogue was the same quippy, pop-cultural reference-filled tripe it always had been.  I watched the movie again a few months ago, and STILL nothing had changed since the first viewing.  

Conversely, each moment on stage is a unique one that no audience will ever see again, affected by everything from the make up of that night’s crowd, to troubles in an actor’s own personal life surging into his character.  Something as simple as a rainstorm outside can completely change the mood of everyone in the theater, which in turn is reflected in the actors’ performances on stage.  It’s that spontaneity of each performance that makes theater an artistic experience unlike any other.  This is the magic of theater.  And yet, with each passing year, attendance at the theater wanes, and hundreds of theaters around the country default and close up shop.  Many people my age (28) and younger have never even sat in a live theater audience.  

Theater can’t give you the otherworld experience of Avatar in 1080p computer graphics (although theater is always presented in 3D, at no extra charge).  It can’t offer you the cool Dutch angles, or the carefully edited, perfect delivery of every line, every time. Never mind the 57 takes it took to get that performance.  That’s where theater differs.  It forces the viewer to use his imagination, suspend disbelief for a couple of hours; imagine that you are peeking through a window of an attic in 1940’s Amsterdam.  It brings an audience in Chicago onto a southern plantation to watch a woman become a cat on a hot tin roof.  Theater places the audience member in the rather uncomfortable position of being an active part of the experience.  You’re not laughing at projected light on a giant screen, you’re laughing at flesh and blood standing feet from you—and they can hear you.  In film the audience is a passive receiver; the movie would roll by no differently in an empty room than in a room packed with thousands.  Yet on stage, an actor would wonder why he moved, why he spoke without an audience.  If they’re not there, then why is he?  

Yet millions of kids attend drama camps, major in musical theater, audition for roles on stage in between shifts at the diner, even as the audiences disappear. They are the ones holding up the world of theater.  It’s not in the carefully manicured, choreographed, Broadway musical adaptation of a Disney movie.  It’s the long tradition of suffering through matinees in dingy dressing rooms in rundown theater buildings that constitutes the last bastion of live theater.  Like drug-addicts, they’re attracted to the experience of two-hours on stage when anything can happen.  When in an instant, a broken pullout couch can create a spontaneous performance that only those actors on stage and the 85 people in their seats will ever have the privilege to experience.  And when the curtain drops, it’s only in memories that the moment lives.

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