Wherefore Theater? Why Is the Ancient Art Still Here?

With every kind of digital distraction, and ever cheaper and more convenient ways to entertain oneself, what is theater doing here? Wherefore bother with theater?
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Robert Redford and Arianna Huffington headlined the Americans for Arts National Summit in Baltimore last month. They both extolled the power, vitality, and fundamental importance of the arts in this country. Even in a recession. Even with environmental disasters licking our toes. Despite that -- heck, because of that -- art is urgent. But why?

With that in mind, I start this theater blog not with the tattered thespianic howl: Theater is dying! Forsooth! Instead I'll briefly crack into the question: Why is theater, one of the more ancient art forms and my personal favorite, still here?

With every kind of digital distraction, and ever cheaper and more convenient ways to entertain oneself, what is theater doing here? What does it do more successfully than TV or movies or video games? Wherefore bother with theater?

1) Here and Now. Going to theater isn't just watching a story, it's being in it. By sitting in a theater with live actors you become part of the drama and/or comedy. You are in the moment with real, live humans. That's primal attention-getting stuff that projections (no matter how 3D they are) can't match. Theater is not just live -- it's alive.
Margaret Edson, Pulitzer-winning author of the amazing play Wit, gives a lecture wherein she describes this singularity of theater. To poorly summarize: At any given performance of a live play, there will never be another time like the one you're in. When the vibrations from this actor's throat hit your ear a unique moment comes to be when you and the entire audience share space and time and human presence. And that, dear friends, is live theater. Because it's not just story that entertains and inspires us, it's experience. Theater feels different because there's space, time, human connection, and existence to actually feel.

2) Theatricality. So much more than jazz hands, I think of theatricality as the aspect of theater that encourages the impossible. Angels can break through ceilings (Kushner's Angels in America), ghosts may walk and talk among us (Hamlet), people spontaneously sing and dance in unison (any and every musical you see). With music, movement, design, symbol, satire, metaphor, poetry, dramatic structure, self-reference, and a little slight-of-hand theater has very simple (no CG required) tools to blow your mind. Basically, if we say that a character is a ghost, they are. Done. No need for rabid special effects to entrance or surprise you. Theatricality works just on the basis of shared imagination -- the imagination of the playwright, director, designers, and audience all converging in the now. That kind of artistic freedom allows theater to plunge into all kinds of fantasy without losing human scale and emotion.

3) It's All Starts Here. Plus or minus some light cues, a cushy chair, and a reminder to please god turn off your freaking phones, theater is a simple system: Actor + Audience + Story = Theater. But that same equation is how we tell our family about our day, how we learn World History from a teacher, how we share an idea with our friends. It all starts with "Hey, lemme tell you something..." When theater works it's a combination of the very basic human instinct to embody a story, and the best of visual, musical, literary and performing arts. It's fundamental.

4) It's Accessible. You've seen a play. You've read a play. Most of us have been in a play at one point in our lives (I played Baby Bear in kindergarten, thank you very much). Theater is just plain easy to be a part of. It wants you to participate, to show up, to try it yourself, to engage, to applaud.

So. Theater is not dying because it's fundamental; it's wildly imaginative and yet intimately human; and it's alive and accessible in the present. It also improves the local economy and education (More on that later).

It is, however, struggling because its too expensive for many people and yet still doesn't make enough money to support itself (Broadway is a different story); its disappearing from education because its an "easy" thing to cut when we focus on math, science, and grammar; because a production of a new play (not to mention the involved artists) can be easily and speedily devastated by a few tough critics (whereas a movie can still make tons of cash even if its panned rightfully or not); and because it's often understood to be a cultural chore for the elite. But let's not get into this just yet.

Instead if you haven't seen a play in a while, try it. Go see a big musical in a big regional theater, then go see some Shakespeare somewhere outdoors, then go see a brand new play or improv at some small funky place downtown. Experience live theater, then tell me what you felt and wherefore.

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