On Sunday, the Philadelphia Fringe Festival came to a close after 3 weeks of non-stop theatre. I was lucky enough to have been a part of Nature Theatre of Oklahoma’s episodic series Life and Times and even luckier to have received an artist pass, which entitled me four complimentary tickets and an opportunity to see any show for $5. Over those three weeks, I partook in the mad dash to see as much theatre as I could and therefore saw nine productions (I think), which, to be honest, were troublesome to count because half of them were so lack luster. There were exceptions of course, but we won’t name names for the sake of patting some people on the back and not others.
From this and other recent experiences, I’ve been formulating a critical and unsettling question, one that dares to stare in the face of my BFA in Theatre Arts and betray its honor. The question I’m talking about: Why see theatre?
So to preface my speculation(s), I want to consider three different experiences I often have when viewing live theatre performances, which, for all intents and purposes, will not include cabaret, burlesque or nightclub acts.
Reaction 1: I enter the production with an open mind and open heart and between 1/3 to half way in, I am either bored, upset or horrified I came to see such rubbish.
Reaction 2: I find issues with a production, but am able to see the good and come away with a few positive remarks.
Reaction 3: My jaw is wide open during much of the piece, or there is a grand “AHA!” moment and I am, for the moment, stolen away from my ordinary life into a state of catharsis and/or ecstasy.
Obviously, these reactions are not hard and fast. My experiences in the theatre are also based on my expectations, my day, my taste and all the other details that affect one’s viewing of a piece.
What also seems obvious is that what I consistently hope for, what brings me back to the theatre is Reaction #3. It’s a feeling that piques my awareness to new heights and allows me to sense magic is happening. And those moments are magical! Time is transformed and space is re-imagined. If you’ve ever sat with me through Reaction #3, I’m either gripping the arm rest for dear life or you! But the moment of magic arrives and then it’s gone. Theatre is ephemeral. It’s fleeting. And alas, form me therein lies the problem.
Besides wanting to feel R#3, some will assert other reasons why one might attend a theatrical event. One might say that seeing theatre live is a great way to feel a sense of community. But let’s be honest, when have I ever gotten anything from strangers sitting in the dark at the other end of a theatre? All too often, I’m annoyed because someone tall is sitting in front of me, playing on their phone and opening a candy wrapper. Needless to say I don’t usually find the sense of “community” all that enlightening.
Some might say it’s to see the theatre space itself. There are some houses still, but not many (especially in the states), that are a work of art themselves. If possible, I recommend seeing these houses during day time hours rather than buying one of those pricey tickets for the often terrible shows they house. Although people-watching in these spaces is always fun and is a theatrical event in its own right, again, I recommend practicing this art when and where it is free.
So I’m gonna go with R#3 as the reason why I have dedicated most of my life to live theatre. It's in those rare moments that I can project myself onto the action before me and gain perspective about life itself. But why go to have my hopes and dreams for theatre's immediate potential fulfilled when regardless if they are or not, I will most certainly be left high and dry, forced to face reality once more?
I have a dream that good theatre can be life-changing. That it can print itself in the gut memory that we’ll carry for a life-time. And I believe theatre can perpetuate presence and a regard for the now that we need more than ever. But how?
I leave the Philly Fringe still hungry, still yearning, still wondering how theatre can fulfill its radical potential. As a result, I’ve been investigating forms such as cabaret and burlesque to see how they function differently. I think there’s something in them, and something important about how subversion can reinvent what live performance can be and potentially do. But that’s another topic entirely.
So essentially, I think I continue seeing theatre to figure out what to do with it. It’s a process that will take a long, long time, but I’m up for the ride. So see you at the next show?