Theatre: But oh, that tenth!

ART TIMES Jan/ Feb 2011

Theater is a mysterious art, perhaps the most mysterious of them all. Every play is a playing with reality, a complicitous game between performers and performers and between performers and audience in which those who play the game become absorbed in it, while those outside the game—if we imagine a dispassionate observer, happening upon the performance unprepared—can only look on and shake their heads that such an obvious falsity to those outside should be so like reality to those inside. We think back on a play that we remember as utterly gripping, totally involving; we look at pictures of that very performance and they seem like the make-believe of children, as utterly and obviously false as anything of paint and pasteboard might be.

Theater is like an onion, or Chinese boxes, or a Russian doll. The more we peel back the surface to look inside, the more we find the outside of another surface. What is this game we play? It is a game within a game, and a game beside a game. Inside the show, with its space and lighting, scenery and costumes, all its physical infrastructure, is the performance, the words and voices, movement and gesture, expression and vocalization. Beside that game is another game, one of observing and reacting, of thinking and responding, of remembering and imagining, of attending and interpreting, of being strangely absent and strangely present both at once.

Inside the performance is another game, a playing with the essence of the self, a being-present and a being-absent, a being-which-is and a being-which-is-not. The actor is the character, and is not; the character is the actor, and is not; the character is present, and is not; the actor is absent, and is not. This monadic dance of self and other plays out in the perceptions of the audience, and in how those are reflected back to the actor, and in the perceptions of the actor, and how those are reflected back to the audience; and in how both sets of perceptions influence each other in a complex swirl of communication and evocation.

At the core of it there are two beings in one body—perhaps even three. There is that self which is turned over to fiction, which exists wholly in a fiction and ceases to exist when the fiction ceases. There is that self which is partly of the fiction and partly of the reality, which shapes and responds to the fiction and is shaped by how the fiction responds, but which exists continually before, during and after the performance. And there is that self which stands apart, a shepherd, a guide, a mentor, setting boundaries to the game that keep it safe and keep it pure, that knows what the object of the game is and watches for the signposts on the road to the goal.

This is what we need. This is what we long for. To this end we build what is not easily seen by the partakers, but which is profoundly important to the preparers: the ritual. The coming to the theater. The greeting of our partners. The arrangement of sets and props, of costume and makeup, of lighting and sound, of effects and contrivances. The execution of movements and vocalizations, the expression of words and ideas, the enactment of interactions. The permission we give to our partners to invade us, and the invasions we make, by permission, of our partners, emotional and physical.

There are no guarantees. The gods may descend, or remain aloof. We may attain the magic, or we may only give a show. It may be made or marred by the weaknesses and failings in ourselves and in our partners, in our seeking for power or vanity or reputation or—for the most foolish—money. It is the possibility, which lures us back, like a cruel and capricious lover, nine-tenths pain and one-tenth pleasure.
But oh, that tenth!

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