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September, 2002

When it comes right down to it, why do we bother with theater? Why don’t we just stay home and read, or watch TV, or go out to a movie? Well, aside from the fact that to a bothersome extent we do indeed do just that, it’s because we want something specific that we only get from the theater. You go to the gas station because that’s where you get something specific—i.e., gasoline—that you don’t get elsewhere. You go to the theater because you get something specific that you don’t get elsewhere. That something is theatricality.

Theatricality is why a black man can play Henry VI or a white man can play Othello or a woman can play Hamlet or a man can play Dolly Levi. In a history classroom, we know that Henry VI wasn’t black, and we care about it. In the theater, we know that he wasn’t black, and we don’t care about it. That’s because when we come to the theater, we come to see what a live actor on stage in front of us will do with that tortured monarch. We don’t want data; we want to be moved, to be intrigued, to be surprised. The performer who plays the part brings a particular mind, a particular heart, a particular sensitivity to the role, and that’s what we care about.

Theatricality is why we don’t gots to show you no stinkin’ unities. The Renaissance writers who dreamed up the unities by adding too much thought to not enough Aristotle simply had no idea what they were doing. The theater is not about limitations; it is about imaginative freedom. In the theater, we can move in time and space at will. We can hop from one century to another if we like. We can bring people together who never met because they lived hundreds of years apart or thousands of miles apart or both. What would Marx have said to Jesus? For that matter, what would Jesus have said to Marx? We can take a crack at the answer to a question like that because theater is theatrical, i.e. unlimited as the imagination is unlimited. "Let us on your imaginary forces work."

Theatricality is why imagination rules and reality can just go take a hike. If we want to go to Cloud-Cuckoo-Land, we can. If we want devils to rise out of the ground, they can. If we want to, we can turn out and do an aside or a soliloquy and talk directly to the audience—as if they were there! My God! What a thought! That the audience is there and we can talk to them! That’s the greatest theatricality of all—to remember and act upon the fact that the performer and the audience, the preparer and the partaker, share the same space and time and air together.

Ultimately theatricality is why we do theater at all. If all we wanted to do was tell significant stories and see people do what they do, we could get along very well without theater. Film and TV would do the job just fine. But when we want theater, film and TV don’t cut it, because they don’t have theatricality. We don’t get the living presence of the performer in those forms. We don’t get the utter freedom of the imagination that comes from being in the theater. Theatricality lets us soar together, in one place and space, and that gives us rewards we just don’t get anywhere else.

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