By Eric Shaw
Movies and television should have killed the play. That’s not to say that they haven’t done damage to theater; they have, but moving pictures, at their height of popularity, should have destroyed it. Unlike the cultural battle between novels and film, plays and films tell stories in the same way: through dialogue. The play’s greatest challenge is enmeshing the audience members in a setting and getting them to ignore the fact that they are looking at a constructed set inside a building.
Movies and TV, on the other hand, are able to approach a script with fewer limitations. Their sets require no leap of the imagination. No extra step. A road is actually a road, a desert is a desert, and a factory is a factory. Films have the added bonus of casting prettier faces, choreographing cleaner action sequences, and streamlining smoother scene sequences. They should have killed the play, but they haven’t.
So how has theater survived? Do older patrons watch it for a vague notion of feeling cultured? How about younger people who rely on it as a creative outlet through which to practice acting and technical skills? Whatever the motivation, these people are keeping theater afloat around the country even despite the obvious advantages of working in film. The play as an art form may deserve to stick around after all.
Perhaps the play’s inability to provide literal landscapes and sets can actually work to its advantage. One of the most interesting things about seeing a live production is witnessing the ability of the director to translate real life situations into a theatrical story. For instance, the staged production of The Lion King costumes its actors in creative contraptions to create the appearance of a herd of animals. It’s a similar experience to listening to a cappella groups cover popular songs: you wonder how they are going to use their voices to recreate instrumental noises. This same sense of wonder is a product of the creative problem-solving abilities and outside-the-box thinking unique to theatrical productions.
What makes a theatrical translation truly successful is when audience members project their own imagination onto the images on stage. Whether they are conscious of this process or not is irrelevant; they are using their minds creatively. This makes play-watching an active experience, while watching a film or TV show is a passive one. Some people enjoy being able to turn their brains off for entertainment, but surely one of the purposes of art is to make the viewer think.
The real essence of a play is its intimacy in telling a story—an intimacy which TV and film cannot match. Going to a play is a little like going to a baseball game at the stadium or seeing your favorite band in concert. The live experience is more engaging than the recorded version, and the feeling of being a part of the present action is a powerful one. Novels do put you deep inside a narrative, but the act of reading is a solitary one. Watching a play is a shared experience—not just among the audience members but with the actors too. Actors feed off of audience energy in an exciting way, whether from comic response or the intensity of a high stakes scene.
The most successful plays fill the room with an electric atmosphere in a way that films rarely can. Generally, films include multiple scene cuts and samples of quick conversations meant to drive the plot forward or show character development. Plays, on the other hand, will flesh out dialogue and put the audience right into the flow of conversation, as opposed to simply flashing these fast cuts. Additionally, the dialogue within plays is heavily reliant on subtext, or the true meaning of what each character is saying beyond the literal words. The subtext of each line builds and builds until the tension of what is said and what is meant must surface, ending in a satisfying payoff for the audience.
“I forgot how uncomfortable a play could be,” a friend of mine noted, after seeing a play for the first time in a while. Because of the sheer proximity of the performance, the discomfort of an awkward scene in a play is magnified; but so is the humor of a comical scene or the impact of an emotional scene, making the theatrical experience so much more vivid than that of a film or TV show.
This is not to say that plays are artistically superior to films, novels, or television programs. However, the notion that plays are like inferior versions of film must also be corrected. The two tell stories in very distinct ways. Plays often get a bad rap because of forced school trips to see dry Shakespeare pieces and shoddy high school productions of Grease or Our Town. This is an unfair sample size, especially if your only notion of theater centered on student film festivals and, well, Shakespeare adaptations. So, please, give theater a chance by going out and seeing a well-reviewed play and experiencing the interactive, emotional force that plays are capable of creating.