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The Resolute Pretense

ART TIMES October 2008

GO TO A play, almost any play, and you’ll almost certainly run into one basic phenomenon of today’s theatre: there will be actors, live on stage, up close and personal, probably very up close and personal given the amazing shrinking dimensions of today’s playhouses. And those live, up close and personal actors will be doing their level damnednest to pretend you aren’t there. And you and your fellow audience members will be doing their level best to go along with the gag.

Can we somehow stand back, shed our preconceptions, and take a good look at this peculiar phenomenon? Let’s pretend we’re from some other star system, far, far away, though not long, long ago. We materialize on Earth with enough background knowledge to know what we’re looking at when we find ourselves in a dark room with a brightly lit space in it, where a large group of people is watching a small group of people behave as if they were someone else, somewhere else, doing something else.

“Why the pretense?” we might ask. “Here are these people, these actors, who are doing something quite interesting and remarkable and skillful. They themselves are interesting; what they are doing is interesting in and of itself. The effect of what they’re doing is also very good and very interesting, so of course we would like to be part of that, but why stop there? Why not be part of how those effects are made to happen as well as being part of the experience of those effects themselves? We could enjoy this so much more if we were more a part of it, if they pulled us in rather than walling us out. Yes, we like getting to know the story, but we would also like to get to know the storyteller.”

The fact is that our theatrical tradition, our Anglo-Euro-American tradition from the mid-19th century to the present, is weird in this respect. Most theater forms, around the world and through time, welcome the audience in. The audience is part of the show, in a workably limited way. I’ve just been enjoying some materials on theater among the Gimi people of New Guinea. In their masked-theater performances, the audience is an important supporting character; timely comments, wisecracks and warnings from the audience are a key part of the show. We ridicule the rube who calls out a warning to the hero of the melodrama, but his whole-hearted participation in the story is actually a much healthier response than is our sit-on-our-hands, motionless, expressionless, silent approach. The art of the aside in theatre from the 1600’s to the 1800’s is now lost, and with it a wonderful technique for gaining direct contact and communication between actor and audience.

So let’s bring the theater down off cloud nine. Let’s restart a tradition of direct contact, statement and response, interaction and involvement between performers and audiences. Our theater spaces, which are so small because our audiences are so small, favor it strongly. The experience of our times, where “interactive” is the buzzword, favor it even more. The success of improvisational performance, which may be the most thriving form of theater in our time, shows us the way. We just don’t need the resolute pretense anymore. Let’s take advantage of the fact that we’re better off without it, and learn how to do what we do with that in mind. I have to believe it will work better than our wildest dreams.

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