What Is Theatre?

World Theatre Day  was on March 27. (See Stratford Festival message.) In fact, it was the 50th World Theatre Day (although John Malkovich’s brief message at UNESCO was trifling compared with Jessica A. Kaahwa’s 2011 message, A Case for Theatre in Service of Humanity).

Wait a minute, World Theatre Day? No one could challenge the validity of World Water Day, because water is a precious resource we all need and which is in a state of crisis and neglect. Who needs theatre. Wait, that is a question, and not a rhetorical one.

Who needs theatre?

I’ve heard it argued that the invention of photography made the art of painting obsolete. “Adios, Picasso; no use for you!” And some would say movies have made theatre obsolete. “Look at the size of that screen! So much bigger than life!” That is what theatre has that movies never will: life.

What is theatre?

Theatre is not just entertainment. Theatre is communication. A movie doesn’t respond to you, but a stage presentation does. Theatre responds to an audience and develops according to that response, over the course of an evening and over the course of the show’s run, and throughout the lifetime of the theatre company. Theatre is immediate and theatre changes. Theatre is change. A movie can get remade, but it will never be a living thing; its changes are static. Change in theatre is organic and interactive.

What I just saw.

I don’t go to see theatre often because, being an unknown playwright, I can’t afford to leave the apartment (in fact, I can’t afford the apartment). But at Word On The Street book festival last year, after agreeing to an exhibitor’s unexpected request that I read with her a scene from a script—out loud to passersby, who passed us by—I was rewarded with tickets to Tarragon Theatre, any show this season. I wanted to see their first show, Sarah Ruhl’s In the Next Room or ‘the vibrator play’, which sounded good, and was nominated in 2010 for a Pulitzer and a Tony Award—but it was a busy month and I couldn’t make the dates.

Nicole Underhay and Rick Roberts in "The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs"  Cylla von Tiedemann

Nicole Underhay and Rick Roberts in "The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs"
photo by Cylla von Tiedemann

Now a show is on which is expected to win awards (for whatever that’s worth). The English premiere of The Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, by Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette, inspired by the tale of Bluebeard, deserves any award it can get, as far as I’m concerned. Not that it was my favourite play, not that I was moved to tears, not that I would recommend it to everyone; but it “worked”, it entertained, and it made sense.

But what did it mean?

The full 200 seat audience was not stingy with applause, but there was no standing ovation or curtain call. Some gave each other puzzled looks as they put on their coats. On the way out I heard one person ask another “Not to your liking?”

It is easy to dismiss anything that is unfamiliar. And what was unfamiliar about this play was that it didn’t spell things out Hollywood-style. It was like a good poem. It said things in a way that requires a bit of cogitation. It might mean different things to different people, but it should not have been meaningless to a native English speaker. To me, the characters were not the disturbed oddballs that they seemed to be on the surface; they were entirely ordinary people and alarmingly familiar, like some specific people close to me. It helped me reflect on how I, my friends, my family members, may often seem to one another like disturbed oddballs. But that is just on the surface (in many cases).

“Who has time for that?”

Lots of people don’t have time for lots of things that are important. Most people don’t sleep enough, don’t chew their food enough, don’t communicate enough. Yawn, chew, “No time to talk,” chew, yawn. If I don’t make time to make sense of Shakespeare or my parents or siblings, that will be my loss. Theatre is communication. Like understanding family, it is not always easy, but making an effort to understand is time well spent.



Filed under family and relationships, languages and communication, theatre

3 responses to “What Is Theatre?

  1. The arts console where science cannot cure.

    That’s my copyright and philosophy. Plays, paintings, writing, music, dance – who doesn’t need at least one of these forms, to ‘take you out of yourself’, as it used to be said. Some other guy copyrighted ‘the play’s the thing’ a while ago, and who can say him nay?

  2. clark

    The arts certainly can console, but that’s not to say they do. Both live theatre and movies can let you down when the author fails to take a position on her or his own story. When that happens, I’m reminded of the movie Failure to Launch.

    • Ah yes, and I call that a failure to communicate, parallel to conversations with family and friends that leave you saying, “Hunh?” or even “WTF?” Pity to get that response to a play or film that took years to develop, but at least live productions can constantly be reshaped to be more effective, whereas once a movie is made the “conversation” is over.

      And of course it often happens that you understand exactly what the play, film or friend is saying, and you simply disagree entirely. But better to disagree than to fail to understand. So if the play, film or friend has put a lot of thought and effort into saying something to you, it’s worth the time to think over what they tried to say.

      And it must be remembered that much of what is said has been heard before or is not worth trying to understand, so it is advisable to be selective about what communication you want to participate in. Hey, are you still there? Come back here; I haven’t finished!

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