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So, Why Go to the Theater?

Robin Alexander

Posted on January 31, 2019 16:02

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Without an audience, there is no valid reason to perform. Sure, performers can sing/dance/act/riff for friends or for themselves, but that’s not the same, is it? For the audience, it’s not like reading a book or viewing a painting. Those are silent encounters with a creator across space and time. So, why do we bother to attend live performances? (If you’re in the habit of saying, “I just want to be entertained,” click X now … or read on with an open heart).

Live performance brings strangers on both sides of the curtain together like children crouched in a tent on a summer night, eager to conjure up magic. There are phantoms in the wings and in the rafters (the writer, composer, choreographer, director, designers, and stage manager) and their contributions are vital. But as that particular indoor dusk descends, it’s the performers and the audience who lock eyes and dance.

A play is public yet intimate, communal yet personal, repeatable yet unique, intellectual yet sensuous, vicarious yet visceral. It’s designed to satisfy a crowd, but each participant leaves with something distinctive.

The ancient Greeks held annual theatrical festivals consisting of four days of back-to-back performances during which the audience was quite understandably swept away. Aristotle writes of catharsis, the arousal of terror and pity in a controlled environment through identification with a character, and the subsequent purging of these emotions.

A modern take would say that plays often trigger disturbing emotions we have not sufficiently dealt with in our lives, thereby helping us to release them. We may believe we are crying over Willy Loman’s suicide, but we are really crying over a recent, or even a childhood, loss. That feels good, and so we go.

There’s more. Years ago I sat in my mother’s living room watching 12-year-old Esther play the violin for our small congenial group. She was a prodigy who studied with Ashkenazi and performed at Carnegie Hall by age 15. We were beholding the exceptional, and I was transported to a place where I reveled in the human capacity to create authentic beauty.

I was not simply part of Esther’s audience. With a profound human connection, I was with her bow as it pulled music out of wood; I was with her heart’s primal empathy with each note. Somehow, I too was this creator. That is transforming, and so we go.

Then last night I saw Mallory Newbro as Bette Midler in a new musical revue.

There was not one flick of a wrist or ankle, not one tremulous or brazen note, not one side-long glance, pout, push or Soph joke that wasn’t perfection. But that’s just the beginning. I have never seen someone sing a song with his/her eyes. In Superstar, she wasn't just Mallory pretending to be Bette singing a sad song; was I watching Mallory as a sad Bette, or Mallory actually sad? The point is, she traveled beyond a merely superb performance and landed elsewhere entirely.

Mallory embodied on stage what we all long for in real life. To be 120% present. She gave us ALL of herself, and she gave it deeply. I left feeling as if I had been embraced by her. I left the theater not only in awe of her talent, I left in awe of her matchless magnanimous life force. I left wanting to run five miles, hug the world, and write five TLTs.

And that’s why we go to the theater.

Robin Alexander

Posted on January 31, 2019 16:02

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Source: Variety

Cristi Puiu's drama somewhat taxingly allows those gathered to seek their own catharses, rewarding audiences with the patience...

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