My recent trip to see one of my plays produced brought the value of live theater right back to the forefront of my thinking. I’m a bit of a radical when it comes to theater history and philosophy. I don’t think that theater is a sophisticated development of advanced civilizations and societies. I believe that theater is an essential and integral part of what made us human. In fact, I don’t think we could have evolved intelligence and become the way we are without theater.
Let me tell you why I think this.
Being part of an audience and seeing a live performance is satisfying in the deepest ways. What you witness can be a musical performance, a speech or lecture, or even a product demonstration. But at a play, seeing actors create a story while a group of us watch is something more. There is a palpable difference in being there. The best recording of a live performance is only a shadow of what it was like to be there, a flicker, an echo. While you are part of the audience, it is also clear that you are not alone. You are a part of something, however temporary it may be. This is the first lesson of theater. You are a part of a group, a society.
My recent trip to see a play that I had written showed me another thing: we crave story. There I was, watching a play that I had written, a story that I had shaped and created, spent endless hours researching and thinking about, and still I quickly became fully engaged in the story and engrossed in what was happening on stage. There’s magic in story and storytelling. I believe that being part of an audience, the act of listening to a storyteller and groups of storytellers, is one of the oldest and most fundamental human experiences. And here’s the radical part: I think it predates the religious ceremonial experience. From what I’ve seen, researched, and experienced myself, religious ceremony is a subset of the theatrical experience. I told you I was a radical.
But there’s much more. It feels good to applaud, to clap your hands and show approval with others. It’s fun to boo and hiss, to shout approval, to gasp in surprise and shock. And there’s a significant difference from being home alone watching a flickering screen to being in a crowd, even a small crowd, and witnessing people pretend and tell stories. Over the years we have become very sophisticated media consumers, but the response to theater is much deeper and from what I can tell, it’s a universal human experience transcending cultures.
Perhaps most important is what happens afterwards, in the hours and days after you leave the theater. It doesn’t matter if it’s a comedy, a musical, or a drama — after I’ve been to the theater I feel changed and a bit refreshed. The better the play, the more refreshed I feel. This is the true cathartic experience that theater brings. This experience can touch us so deeply because, I believe, it was the theatrical that helped us evolve intelligence and communication.
Sentience, the ability to think, and the ability to communicate are all a part of our humanity. My argument is this: as hominids, when our ancestors began to form the basics of language, it was the sharing of stories and information that accelerated the process of developing higher intelligence. The communal setting, the sharing of stories about how to hunt, where to find the best food, why it gets cold at night, are all roots of the theatrical experience. There is an evolutionary advantage for loving stories, for watching and listening with a group.
So here’s my claim: we have become human, learned to communicate, learned to empathize, all through the theatrical experience. It’s been a part of us across the myriad generations, across millennia and it remains a crucial part of us. When we neglect it, we miss out on a significant part of our human experience. When we partake of it, we connect with the basic elements that make us human.
These are big claims, big ideas. They’re worthy of doctoral study and book length arguments. Today I’m just introducing my ideas and sharing my thinking. The books and dissertations can come later.
Many people today have never seen a live play. Some think that TV and movies, art forms that I deeply love, are successors to live theater. I’ve heard it said that we don’t need live theater any more. I’ve even heard the claim that live theater is dead, an anachronism. But I’ve seen for myself what happens when people become part of an audience. I’ve seen people change when they enter a theater for the first time in their lives.
Yes, some people simply don’t have live theater easily available to them. But almost anyone can find some semblance of theater, perhaps in a religious ceremony, or maybe just by taking a trip down to the local pub to listen to someone spin a fantastical yarn, tell a tall tale. Going to a live sporting event like a baseball or football game is part of the theatrical experience. A professional wrestling match is 100% theatrical and a NASCAR race isn’t far from it. Both are just echoes of the gladiatorial battles held in coliseums, a fully theatrical event with very real consequences.
But TV and movies simply can’t replace the communal audience experience and can’t supplant the very real connection that an audience and live actors and performers establish.
We need more theater. Movies and TV are part of many people’s daily lives, but that’s not theater. Going to a religious service or ceremony can be, but it’s a highly constrained experience, too narrow, too repetitive. To receive the full impact of the theatrical you’ll have to make an effort and go to the theater and see for yourself if I’m onto something.
If you’ve never been to the theater it’s easy to dismiss this. But I’m off to the theater again this week. I’ll sit with hundreds of others in the audience. And I’ll open myself to the experience, let it move me, change me. And I’ll be all the more in touch with my humanity because of it.
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Update: Thanks to @rhymzwithstarry for helping with a couple of typos!
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