Sunday, January 3, 2010

The Necessity of Theater

In his 2008 book "The Necessity of Theater," philosopher Paul Woodruff says that people need theater the way they need each other - "to talk things over, to have stories in common, to share friends and enemies. They need to watch, together, something human." At this point, it is worth recalling that theater and theory have similar etymologies, that both derive from the words "to behold" or "to view," and that both therefore, at their best, offer opportunities to gain fresh perspectives on the world. With the help of theater (and theory), we see things with greater clarity and insight, and are invited to reconsider those traits and those experiences that define us as human.

On Friday, we saw a new play by Annie Baker called "Circle Mirror Transformation." There is nothing Aristotelian or Shakespearean about it (at least not on the face of it), so perhaps Professor Woodruff would not find it worthy of further analysis or discussion, but I found it immensely resonant. The entire play is the story, over a 5 week period, of a small community education theater class - 1 teacher and 4 students - that in the process of undergoing a series of rather contrived acting exercises get to know each other and themselves in wholly new ways. They are, in fact, transformed by the experience. But those changes occur subtly, gently, even mundanely, and it is only as the play is ending that you realize how much has happened to them all.

What particularly fascinated me about all of this was how skillfully silence is used, for instance. At the very beginning of the play, the class has already begun and the five of them are lying on the floor. Nothing happens for what seemed like many minutes, though it was probably only a minute at most. Then you hear someone call out the number "one." Then "two," then "three," then two participants at once say "four," which requires them to begin again. It turns out they are engaging in a group exercise to test their ability to be "fully present," and which obliges them to count as a group to ten without any of the numbers being said by two people simultaneously. This elementary exercise captures all the awkward hesitations and pauses that are often part of any group's efforts to get to know one another, and that are echoed again and again in this play's developments. And it is, in fact, that supremely discomfiting awkwardness of human beings thrown together in a strange situation and trying to make contact with each other that this play explores with such sensitivity and insight. Nothing much seems to happen and yet...over the 5 weeks all 5 people have life-changing experiences. It is all so basic and yet so complex, a lot like real life. And the ways in which this often painful portrayal of human beings struggling to make sense of their lives forces the audience to do the same thing is just short of miraculous. You leave the theater with dozens of questions unanswered about these people and their motivations but at least some of those questions, unavoidably, inexorably, apply to your own life as well. Only live theater can do this for people, it would seem, and leads me anyway to the inevitable conclusion that Paul Woodruff is right. In a very real sense, theater does feel like a necessary part of being more fully human - more alive to the frailties and grimaces, the grace notes and generosities of everyday experience.

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