Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Theatre is a many-splendored thing

Whenever I talk to someone who doesn’t attend theatre, it takes several attempts to explain my existence. Once I make it clear that what I do and care about is not movies, mega-musicals, or the road production of a Broadway hit, I am frequently left looking at a blank and nodding face emitting an indeterminate sound intended to communicate understanding. We move on to talk about the Canucks or the weather.

I am smack-dab in the middle of seeing 11 shows in 10 days, most at the Magnetic North Theatre Festival. It’s quite a wild ride and it underlines the incredible diversity of the art that is live theatre, making me quite sympathetic to my clueless friend above.

In the last five days, I have seen:
A play with live music in which the two performers had boxes on their heads
A show I entered through a refrigerator and after which I ate apple pie onstage
A compelling drama by Shaw remarkable in its simplicity and its strong performances
An audience-pleasing “old chestnut” of an American musical, and
A gripping tale of one woman’s life told by dozens of characters and a single performer

They are all live theatre. And they were all remarkable, meaningful works in one way or another. The audience response varied.

Two shows received almost universal acclaim: the refrigerator show (a multimedia, contemporary circus performance called Loft by Montreal’s The 7 Fingers) and the one-woman show (blood.claat written and performed by Jamaican-born Torontonian d’bi.young). Loft was the most fun I’ve had in the theatre in a long time, although it was almost completely lacking in story. Blood.claat. on the other hand, oozes story: a compelling, total-immersion of a play that baptized its viewers in the redemptive power of its narrative and leaves you in awe of the performer’s abilities as a writer and actor.

The Shaw play (St. Joan at Chemainus Theatre) was sadly underappreciated, more due to the sensibilities of its audience and the wordiness of the writer than to any shortcomings in the fine production. The musical (South Pacific, also at Chemainus), was audibly adored by the capacity audience, as much for the simple story and songs as for the equally fine production.

The fifth show, understandably called Boxhead, polarized the audience.

Next to me sat a woman whose body language made it very clear that she loathed the show. Slouching and stone-faced, she rarely responded to the performers, even though the house lights were raised several times and an actor came into the audience and addressed us directly. At one point, she put her head on her husband’s shoulder, hugging her jacket close around her in a desperate attempt to believe she was somewhere else. At the end, she did not clap.

Directly in front of her were two young women whose experience was exactly the opposite. Completely engaged, they laughed, nodded, and groaned with the tiniest provocation. I could see one girl’s face clearly. Enraptured, her head was upturned slightly, mouth parted in an expression of anticipation. She held her hands in front of her in a posture ever-ready for applause – or prayer – and her fingers frequently quivered with excitement.

While there is nothing quite so satisfying as a performance that is undeniably brilliant – the sort that compels the entire audience to its feet at the end as though riding a tsunami – I also appreciate shows that have this divisive effect.

One of the great powers of theatre is that it is personal. The performers are right there in front of you and their work cannot be filtered or edited or airbrushed. The physical space means each audience member is not guaranteed the same perspective (some theatres capitalize on this) and the uncertainty of the medium means each performance is different.

The room for a range of responses, particularly with new works, is immense. And I think that’s marvelous. As an audience member, part of my job is to think about what works, what doesn’t work, and why, and ultimately to make the art better. Encountering viewers whose experience is different from each other (and from my own) helps keep me humble. Helps me remember my job. And helps make better theatre.

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