Tuesday, March 15, 2005

In Praise of Live Theatre
By William S. Kowinski

Stephen Foster Memorial Theatre, where I first saw Shakespeare performed 

You've got a cableful of TV channels 24 hours a day, and for your VCR there is a sizeable selection from the history of cinema down at the grocery store. For drama or comedy outside your house, there's the neighborhood multiplex: where the big stars flash across the screen, along with the thundering cars, guns and starships. If it's flamboyant theatrical experience you crave, you can catch the latest rock star tour.

So for many people the special and unique rewards of going to a theatre and seeing a play are, in this time and place, something of a wonderful secret.

I grew up on TV and the movies---everything from Captain Video to Dr. Strangelove. The theatre was inaccessible where I lived, and if anyone I knew ever went to a play, I don't remember knowing about it. My high school had no drama class, and put on one silly play a year, like Seventeenth Summer and Time Out for Ginger.

As a so-called adult, the arts I was paid to write about were mostly rock & roll, literature, movies and TV. I wrote about theatre only rarely. Few people I knew---even the sophisticated ones---went to plays, even living in New York or Boston or Washington. (Unless of course they were actors or theatre critics.) Over the last several years I've been a traveler and not part of a community which nurtures theatre and regular theatergoing... All of these being reasons why I shouldn't care about the theatre.

But I do. I won't go into why live theatre attracts me as a writer of plays, or my affinity for performing. I want simply to send a love letter from my place in the dark, from out here in the seats. And to let you in on a few secrets.

The first secret is the one that the uninitiated may be most afraid of: there is something very different about watching a play. It isn't like watching TV or a movie. But instead of avoiding the problem by spending your going-out money at a restaurant (where you can still see glamorous, attractive actresses and actors, and even be waited on by them), consider that the rewards may be worth the effort. That no pain no gain thing.

There are lots of adjustments for the tube addict to make. Once you're there, you're stuck with the play---even if it's worse than Police Academy XX, you can't zap to the shopping channel. You can't even check out the fridge during a slow moment. Besides, those are live people up there, and to indicate that you don't like or understand what they're up to seems impolite. It's embarrassing.

But the most uncomfortable thing you can't escape is the violence. It's unlikely to be as graphic as on film, but it's more relentless. Since drama concerns conflict (which is a kind of violence) it often enacts pain. Even comedy commonly revolves around "problems." The answers aren't so easy as on TV. Watching unhappiness and tragedy unfold, witnessing the heat and sting of conflict, or sorting through intellectual difficulty is tough on the watcher. Of course, it's supposed to be. Even though a good production gives you plenty to be pleased about along the way, pitty and terror, or even joy and wonder, don't come cheap. Unless of course they are cheap---EZCatharsis, tastes great and less filling.

It takes an attention span, too, and that in itself can be painful for generations accustomed to having their retinas lit up by some new bit of visual dazzle every millisecond. And as much as people complain about them, one of the theatre's problems is that it has no commercials. Instead you get the unmitigated art of the play: the rhythms that guide you through a story and an experience, that are the story and experience: the sculpting of time as well as space on stage. Deciding where the funny bits and the melancholy soliloquies go is as important as the content. On TV you get pieces; at the theatre you get the flow.

Still, the payoff is usually some relentless rendering of events, when emotion gets piled upon emotion, threads of plot and character fly together even as pretenses and illusions are shed like coats of sugar in a rainstorm. It's called transformation, and the experience of it is proportionate to the audience's immersion. And there's no substitute for time. You've got to be there.

So why not just go to the movies? You've heard about the "magic of live theatre" and that nebulous "relationship between the actor and the audience," but what does it mean? Is it only the rush you get in realizing that you're in the same room with the lasers and the trained animals? Is this "relationship" like the club comedian who singles you out for abuse and you're supposed to be a good sport, or the fascist smiley face at the microphone who demands you "put your hands together!"

There is an undeniably special quality about actually being in the presence of real people and objects collaborating in a fantasy, and because you're there, being part of that collaboration. So much depends on you, and everything is designed for you. But on any given tonight, nobody knows what will really happen.

You don't get that every time, or at least I don't. If I'm too far away, and the audience is emotionally remote, or the play is dishonest, or the actors are relying entirely on memorized effects, I feel distant or cheated or trapped. But there are moments, sometimes entire acts, entire plays, when it is like nothing else, in a very good way.

So there is the thrill of sharing the uniquely here and now, the sharing of the mutually unexpected, the quality of quiet of a spellbound audience, or even the audience's forgiveness for the lapses or accidents onstage, or a sudden moment of intimacy with the actors and action---all part of the live theatre experience, the palpable relationship that links audience to actor and text in complex and involved play. When all the elements are in balance, the experience is unique, yet there is also the sense that it has been repeated since antiquity.

Plus, if you're seeing a play in your own town, those people up there probably come from the same community as you. They are your representatives in this communal art of fun and meaning, your cosmic stand-ins.

A play can take you through a process---from interest to identification to involvement: you laugh, you cry, you feel---not once, not just one feeling, but many, sometimes many at once. You share amusement, amazement, recognition, embarrassment---you suddenly sense the essence and enjoy the ephemera. And you do it seeing real bodies move and speak in real world continuity---you don't see only the pores on their faces one moment, and their blurred backs speeding away in a car the next. You see whole persons but in an artificial space, and in smaller theaters you are forcibly reminded of their humanness, and therefore your own, our own, even as you always know that what you are looking at is a play on a stage.

The Miller play but at U. of MA

I think of moments during Arthur Miller's The Creation of the World and Other Business, as produced by Pittsburgh's New Group Theater this fall. The performance space was large but the few rows of seats were very close to the action. Although humorous, the play is about very weighty matters, which is hard to avoid when God has a speaking part. But that physical closeness brought the philosophy home. You could stare into the eyes of the actors---a very different experience than watching close-ups distanced by film or tape---and when that actor does not break character as you stare, the reality of the moment takes on greater power.

And you could be startled at the connection made by something as simple as...their bare feet. Close up and personal, real feet of real people: puffy or long-toed, healthily hued or vulnerably pale, feet are simultaneously grotesque and graceful, mundane and impressive and assertively human, right there alive and doing their thing. The play's questions of meaning of good and evil, of individuality and community, fate and freedom---are what theater has always been about. But that search for meaning, the few uncertain discoveries of our exploration, are not completed until the connection is made to our full beings, to our aspirations and vulnerabilities, our confusions and our capabilities---from God to our bare feet.

Of course, the ideal theatre experience doesn't happen all the time---being ideal, it never happens. It's a gamble, and for me, a play that didn't make it, or inadequate direction and acting of a great script, has been more painful to experience than a bad movie. But each production is different---it can say different things to be brought alive, again and again. So I've learned patience, which pays off in appreciation.

Jeremy Irons and Glen Close in the original production of
"The Real Thing" I saw on Broadway

But the second secret is that there are wonderful surprises out there. Not just in Pittsburgh and not just in shiny culture palaces, but in an alley past a dumpster and an old washing machine, and up some stairs at the Changing Scene theater in Denver; and at the Solar Stage in the bowels of an office complex underground in Toronto. Even in New York I've seen some terrifically acted, highly intelligent plays performed both to packed houses on Broadway (such as Tom Stoppard's The Real Thing and David Rabe's Hurlyburly) and to an audience consisting of myself and four or five members of the cast's families (when I saw Mark Pizzato's very worthy The Crime of Art at the 13th Street Playhouse.)

All kinds of theater, from lavish musicals to avant garde performances, can call up the magic. Theater is old---old enough encompass everything and infuse different styles into various forms, so the most rarified is reenergized (the application of gospel music to Greek tragedy in Gospel at Colonus) and the popular is enhanced (as when the musical met ballet, and classical elements of music and storytelling in the original productions of Showboat and West Side Story.)

But theatre is new. It is the one form of the lively arts that can embrace everything: story, poetry, oratory, painting, song and dance of all kinds, and increasingly these days, even the electronic media have become features of---and characters in---stage plays. Performers like Laurie Anderson, Eric Bogosian, Lily Tomlin and Spalding Gray show how the stage can be used to synthesize and create exciting and invigorating new experiences, and paths to meaning. American theater also includes styles that reflect the diversity of the country and the world: styles born in Asia and Africa and Latin America.

When Polonius sees the Players coming, he describes to Hamlet all the styles of theater they can perform: tragedy, comedy, history, pastoral, pastoral-comical, historical-pastoral, and so on. But Hamlet's request of the Players was more basic: "Come," he said. "A passionate speech!"

And this is the final and most important secret. In these strange times, when the arts are more respected but artists are less supported---when, in the words of Dan Sullivan in the Los Angeles Times, there are "millions for the roof, pennies for the fiddler," there are nevertheless still people willing to not only work for next to nothing in the theatre, but to support their work and the theatre by depleting their energies doing menial jobs unworthy of their talents. The theater lives by their passion.

They are playwrights, actors, directors and theater craftspeople who come together and work hard to do what the rest of society judges by word and deed to be frivolous if not insane, and they do it with dedication, with intense love, and more often than anyone has a right to expect, with brilliance. It is impossible for me not to feel this fact every time I see a play, especially in the 1980s.

I think of Lee Strucker and Nadine Curacciolo, two modern day minstrels I met in Seattle, where at the Pioneer Playhouse they performed The Gump Show, a "trans-dimensional comedy" they wrote. They are married and performed their previous plays---wild, fetchingly homemade but often breathtaking amalgams of music, text, science fiction and puppetry---all over Europe and North America. "I know a lot of starving artists," Lee mused one afternoon. "But it's funny---I don't know any starving arts administrators."

Nevertheless they keep going, although they know there's no telling how long they'll be able to continue on the edges of their resources, depending on youthful energy, good health, charity and luck. Others like them, in Pittsburgh and elsewhere, struggle to share a basic version of the American life their audience has (some decent digs, a respectable place in the community, and maybe even a family) while they do this one weird thing: they make theatre.

We know that the myth of talent always winning out is a lie, as corrupting as it is comforting, just as we know that we don't get the quality of theatre we could have. So for the spectator it is all the more astonishing when the magic really happens, the kind you will always remember: not just William Hurt's tour de force in his first Broadway performance at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre, but when Kathyrn Charles does her woman-in-the-moon dance to end the world premiere of "Frontiers" by M.Z. Ribalow in that theatre in the alley in Denver.

To make this magic takes years of effort and hearts full of belief. I don't mean just the actors, writers, producers and directors and so on, though they are the main ones. I mean those of us out here, too. If we approach the theatre actively, with humility and passion, our rewards can be multiplied---and a night of fun is just the beginning. How about the jolts to our hearts, the permanent changes in the way we see ourselves and the world, like growing secret extra eyes and new dancing bare fugitive feet? We enact our part of the human mystery. We share in the secret.


This piece was originally published in In Pittsburgh weekly in 1989 or so, and reflects theatre experiences of that year and a few immediately preceding. Some Internet nebbyness reveals that in 2005 M.Z. Ribalow is a writer in residence at Fordham U., having been a production associate to Joe Papp at the New York Shakespeare Festival, and the author of some 20 produced plays, 10 childrens books, poetry and screenplays. Mark Pizzato is now Dr. Mark Pizzato, an assistant professor of theatre at the University of North Carolina Charlotte, an author and playwright. The most recent item I found for Nadine Caracciolo and Lee Strucker was 1996, and their contribution ("Falling 1980") to the Twentieth Century Project of linked ten minute plays, at the American Living Room.

A strange and sad postscript to this article, which is one of those personal associations that nevertheless leaps out at me every time I even think about this piece: for me, the central experience that led to it was the production of Arthur Miller's "The Creation of the World..." in Pittsburgh. Later I got to know several of the people involved in that theatre and production, including the actress whose bare feet most impressed me. I'm pretty sure she played God. Her day job (I later found out) was working for In Pittsburgh, the weekly tabloid where this article appeared, so I would see her around the office. She was still in her twenties I believe, just a few years later, when she suddenly collapsed and died, on stage, during a performance.