Monday, January 4, 2010

Theater as Imperative

We gotta have it - theater, I mean. Thanks to theater, we watch more closely, listen more acutely, feel more deeply, wonder more audaciously. Theater broadens our idea of what people can experience together. It expands our sense of the possible and may even strengthen our own imaginative powers. I don't have any proof for these claims, only first and second-hand knowledge of the tremendous emotional and intellectual forces unleashed by theatrical performance. It is difficult to overstate their impact.

The play I wrote about yesterday - "Circle Mirror Transformation" - doesn't feel like theater at all; there is so little obvious artifice or familiar theatricality associated with it. Which, of course, is part of its brilliance. We seem to be watching five people going through the motions of living, and the more we watch them, the more we get to know them and understand them and the more we see ourselves reflected in them. In a recent interview, the playwright Annie Baker talks about her special interest in the daunting challenges of communicating effectively with other people. She herself is terrified by the prospect of conveying meanings to others and falling into numbing silence or a kind of linguistic babbling when the right words do not come. Her play is, in part, about the horror of such communication - the fear of appearing foolish, never wholly overcome, and the need, despite the fear, to keep this precious conversation going. How to break through our twin inadequacies with both words and emotion, how to cope with the painful inevitabilities of boredom, meaninglessness, and miscommunication - all central to our everyday human dilemma and just waiting to be excavated through that most verbal of media - theater. Annie Baker pulls it off better than most contemporary writers perhaps because she, as much as anyone, is haunted by these very same demons, and is thus especially well positioned to unearth them in such funny and poignant ways.

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