In this week’s New Yorker, Nathan Heller asks, provocatively, “Who goes to the theater these days, and why?” (He spells it “theatre,” but oh well.)
Funny, because I’ve been thinking a lot about theater this week. I’ve just seen and blogged about two fine stage productions—Twelfth Night and Taming of the Shrew, both by the superb all-male British company Propeller, in town here in Ann Arbor for the past week.
Heller notes that live stage productions are usually viewed as “the spotted owl of American art,” a rare species, hard to find. He mentions how busy we are. How preoccupied with Twitter and YouTube and Facebook and TV. And then comes the money quote, the one that’s got me wondering, for perhaps the millionth time in my life, how to answer the question he poses.
“And yet, for all that,” Heller writes, “the theater has proved strangely resilient, selling (even selling out) cascades of seats and claiming more college degrees than film and clinical psychology combined.” Say that again: more college degrees than both film and psychology???
“Something is going right,” Heller continues. “Perhaps the question isn’t why some give up on the form but why others keep falling in love. What can the theater do that books and screens can’t?”
Heller never really answers the question (which appears in a profile of the 31-year-old playwright Annie Baker). I’m not sure I can either, except to say I think it’s got something to do with how we play-act as kids and grow up envisioning our lives, forward and backward, in scenes. How the miracle of a live actor on a real stage in front of you in this moment in time has an uncanny power that no film or TV sitcom can achieve. How the transformation of that actor into a character is real—not the product of some film editor’s witchcraft—and how that metamorphosis prompts us to question the nature of identity: the actor’s, the character’s, our own.
My hope in this screen-besotted age is that live performance—not just theater, but music and dance—will make even more of a comeback. Because we need it, if for no other reason than to remind us that we’re human, not digital, beings.
May the spotted owl proliferate.