Wednesday, March 19, 2008

The value of theatre

What is the value of theatre? I posted a comment on Aaron Riccio's blog, That Sounds Cool, when he posed that question, but I didn't realize it was a group effort. Steve on Broadway has also weighed in. So let me try to give my own answer.

Until a year ago, I wouldn't have called myself a theatergoer, although I was always interested in the theatre. I'd watch plays and musicals when they were on tv or made into movies. But I rarely ventured out to see a show. It seemed too expensive, I didn't have friends who were interested in it, and I felt a little intimidated going alone. (Although I've never had a problem seeing a movie by myself).

What have I found after a year of regular theatergoing?

When Kevin Spacey walked onto the stage about 30 minutes into A Moon for the Misbegotten, my jaw dropped and I think I was a little bit in shock. I'd seen all of his movies, but you know, it's not quite the same. He was so close I could have reached out and touched him. All I could think of was, "It's Kevin Spacey." At one point, I swear he looked right at me. It was my first time sitting in a Broadway theatre, and no matter how many times I go, I'll never forget that experience.

On a movie screen, the actors are larger than life. But watching Spacey, his costar Eve Best, and the other actors, I felt a sense of immediacy that was kind of thrilling. Especially if you're up close, you can see every expression, the sweat on their faces. There's just something so mesmerizing about watching a group of people a few feet away from you telling you a story.

And as much as I love Kevin, Eve Best was amazing. She brought such great physicality to the part of the rough-edged Josie Hogan. She was so believable. I just got into her performance in a way that I don't usually when I'm watching a movie or tv. She created a truly memorable character on stage in everything she did, whether it was pulling on her work boots, washing her hair, or comforting Kevin's Jim Tyrone.

When I go to the movies, I can usually find a spot away from everyone else. But at the theater, even if it's not a sellout, there are usually people sitting next to me, all around me. So physically, I feel a sense of community much more deeply, even if I go alone. And I love going to the stage door, too. That's another thing you don't get from seeing a movie - the ability to talk to the actors.

I remember at the end of Curtains, feeling a little startled when David Hyde Pierce spoke to the audience directly for a moment, to ask for donations to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. And it looked to me like many, many people were giving. Afterward, I met the entire cast of at the stage door, and they were so wonderful, so gracious and generous with their time. That evening gave me a great sense of the closeness between theater actors and their audience.

Sure, I've seen swordplay and heard gunfire on stage, but primarily, it's not about special effects, it's about language and emotion, getting caught up in a story. I've been on some amazing journeys with characters who grew and matured and changed right before my eyes: Celie in The Color Purple, Louise in Gypsy, Elphaba in Wicked. I've seen stories and situations that really resonated with me, like some of the characters and plot in August: Osage County.

You can have those experiences watching tv or a movie, but it's not the same as having someone right there in the room with you, using basically just their bodies and voices. I saw The 39 Steps in Boston last fall, and I thought it was so inspired, so unlike anything I'd seen before. It's amazing to see what four actors can do with a few props. It's all about creating an illusion - making the audience believe we're really seeing a man flee for his life by running across the top of a train.

We've become so used to the elaborate special effects in movies and on television that we forget about the magic human beings can create all on our own. To me, that's the value of theatre.

No comments: