There are few things in the world as thrilling as good live theater.
The seeds of these exquisite thrills are present in the basic facts of theatergoing: Theater audiences are required to arrive at a designated space at a designated time, where they're expected to sit quietly in the dark among strangers, restricting their attention to the world onstage, thirst and bladder be damned. Only church and commercial airlines demand comparable exactitude from attendees. (Cinema tries, but comings and goings are common, and audience outbursts are annoying rather than nerve-racking; it's not like Nicole Kidman's going to stop the cameras, rip off her Virginia Woolf nose, and berate whoever's unwrapping candy at an Hours matinee.)
The result of these demands is a uniquely focused audience, and when theater makes good on the sacrifices it demands of attendees, the experience is ravishing. Combining the intimate pleasures of a great book with the mob thrills of NASCAR, good theater is underscored by the knowledge that what's happening before our eyes is something new, never to be replicated in exactly the same way.
My first memorable theater experience came when I was 12 years old. Watching a slick summer-stock production of The Pajama Game, I learned an eternal truth of the theater: With the right combination of words and lighting, you can get an audience to believe anything—for instance, that disgruntled factory workers might express their grievances through choreography and song. My first legitimately great theatrical experience came seven years later, at the North Carolina School of the Arts, where I'd enrolled as a theater student after high school. In my sophomore year, visiting artist Brian Mertes blew my mind with his production of Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind.
With his dark and swampy staging of Shepard's three-and-a-half-hour psychodrama—in which a pair of families square off after the son of one family beats the daughter of the other into a coma—Mertes showed how the audience dream state I'd first encountered in The Pajama Game could be stretched over the harshest shit imaginable, and when the balance of words and light is right, the audience will follow you there too. Even better, Mertes directed his student cast to a uniform performance style, an almost cinema-scale naturalism that rejected 90 percent of what we'd been learning as conservatory acting students. With a play as broad and violent as Shepard's, Mertes knew that a mumble can be as terrifying as a scream, and his strategic emotional minimalism, pitted against Shepard's hurricane of horrors, resulted in one of the most impressive theater experiences I've ever had.
As for the slight to our conservatory training, which had students developing their theatrical instruments for six hours a day, five days a week, for four years: Fuck it. Mertes's auteur-like insistence on his vision taught me a second eternal truth of theater: There's no right way to do it. What ignites one show hobbles the next, and vice versa, and the only value of "theatrical craft" is its ability to bring a particular production to life. In short: Whatever works.
Upon graduating, I brought my extravagantly developed instrument and pragmatic theatrical vision to Seattle, where I acted in a couple of fringe plays, started auditioning for bigger places, and saw a whole bunch of theater all over. This was the early '90s, when the fringe meant companies like Annex, AHA!, and Rm 608, while the rest of the theatrical landscape looked exactly the same as today, with Seattle Rep, Intiman, and ACT representing the big leagues, and On the Boards and Empty Space on the artsy edge.
As a theatergoer, I found plenty of worthy stuff everywhere, from Chris Jeffries's Annex musicals to Spalding Gray at On the Boards. As a fledgling actor, I found I hated auditioning so much that I quit acting forever. But attending theater remained a great and rewarding pleasure. During this time, there was no discernible difference between the buzz I got from good theater and that I got from any other entertainment—no sense of lowering the bar for the stage. The shocks I got from Kristin Kosmas's again at Rm 608 were equal to those I got from PJ Harvey's Rid of Me CD; the dreamy mindfuck of blueStory by Seattle theater collective the Compound felt on par with that of the Coen Brothers' Barton Fink; Intiman's Angels in America clobbered any miniseries; and virtually anything undertaken by improv genius Kevin Kent or gender revisionists Greek Active was guaranteed to be 50 times funnier than anything labeled comedy on TV.
Then something happened. I'd go to the theater, the show would commence, intermission would arrive, and with increasing frequency, I'd head for the exit.
The terrors of truly awful theater cannot be underestimated. Nothing sucks like bad theater: You're there, you're trapped, and if you're lucky, you're good at cramming yourself into the corner of your soul where nothing hurts. Of course when we talk about truly awful theater, we talk almost exclusively of the fringe, as the components that add up to a harrowing theater experience—shit texts, tragic casts, dangerous swordplay in severely restricted spaces—are typically weeded out by the natural quality-control safeguards of the big houses, where professional artists work with boards of directors to keep certifiable crap off the stage.
Fringe is not so lucky, with the inherent scrappiness of the form—get a room, pick a play, and voilà, you're a fringe theater!—inviting the occasional idiot whose basic ignorance of the theory and practice of theater should be criminally prosecutable. For theatergoers who find themselves staring at shameless crap, intermission exits are a perfectly legitimate response. If intermission doesn't come soon enough or not at all (is there a phrase with more potential for terror than "performed without an intermission"?), don't fret about slipping out mid-show, even if you have to cross the stage to do so. Extreme times call for extreme measures. And if alleged theater artists refuse to justify the attention they've demanded, audiences shouldn't feel bad about withdrawing it.
But I'm not talking about angry escapes from obvious crap. The intermission exits I found myself increasingly unable to resist had less to do with exasperation and anger than puzzlement and boredom. The shows I was fleeing weren't horrible—often they were perfectly functional productions, with capable casts, proficient technical execution, and thorough dramaturgical support. Other times they were impressively ambitious experiments that stubbornly refused to achieve liftoff. The one trait shared by all the shows that were driving me to early departure was an essential lack of life—a missing spark or frisson or whatever it is that transforms a choreographed parade of text, tech, and behavior into theater, a vital real-time experience that's alive in the world, at least until the final curtain. Attending theater felt less and less like going to a rock show, and more and more like eating my cultural vegetables.
Like any good white male, I immediately blamed myself. Maybe this shift in experience was the result of my reengagement with theater; a couple years after quitting acting, I started writing and performing my own shows, and the responsibilities of making theater—the seriousness of asking strangers to show up, shut up, and sit in the dark—weighed heavily on my mind. Maybe it was a matter of lost innocence, and my familiarity with the inner workings of play-making had robbed me of the ability to lose myself in theater; or maybe it was cultural evolution, with the unprecedented speed and options of cable and the internet warping my pleasure receptors, rendering me unable to appreciate the simple pleasures of the stage.
But then I thought: bullshit. People who make theater are among—and perhaps the majority—of theater's greatest fans, and neither cable nor the internet could keep me from exploding with gratitude when I stumbled upon theater artists who still managed to work magic, seizing the unique elements of the form and deploying them in a way that felt as contemporary as tomorrow. From the brainy theatrics of dance troupe 33 Fainting Spells to the high-tech entertainment rodeo of performance artist Cynthia Hopkins to the apparently inexhaustible theatrical equation of talent-free superstar Dina Martina (who's worked more angles on the "is-she-kidding-or-is-she-crazy?" plane than anyone since God), I still found proof of the existence of living theater—not the careful recitation of a dramatic text before an audience of others, but a living, breathing experience that couldn't exist in any other medium. Still, contemplating the changing history of performance made one thing clear: The increasing suckiness of theater is largely its own damn fault.
Theater has openly flirted with suckiness since Thespis sassed back from the chorus line. The possibility of disaster is inherent in the form: Every great theatrical event requires harmonious excellence from an array of people, from playwright and director to the various designers; with actors and technicians, the requisite proficiency must also be simultaneous, and produced anew night after night after night. But the risk amps the reward: Yes, nothing sucks like bad theater, but nothing thrills like good theater, and the threat of the former only compounds the joy of the latter.
But beyond the suck potential brought by the high-wire aspect of the form, live theater faces other deadly risks—threats far more insidious than a dumbstruck actor, or a director whose vision consists of transposing The Two Gentlemen of Verona to the antebellum American South. The worst of these threats can abort even the possibility of real theater in utero, and the name of this most heinous threat is romance—specifically, the romanticization of the theatrical form.
Hype about the eternal and ineffable aspects of The Theatre has been part of the art form's press pack from the start. But the elevation of the basic theatrical form—the idea that an act of theater boasts inherent worth, regardless of its aims, execution, or entertainment value—is a more recent development. In the 16th century, when theater was the only game in town (besides brothels and bear baiting, that is), its merits were obvious. In the 20th century, when film and television exposed theater's limitations, forcing the form to evolve or die, an understanding of the merits of theater as theater had to be instilled. Thus commenced the conception of theater attendance as an inherently valuable and rewarding endeavor (whether the audience realized it or not) and the transformation of the theatrical experience from a viable popular entertainment into a chore.
Forgive my drama queenery, but the insidiousness of this shift cannot be underestimated. By championing the value of the theatrical experience regardless of its quality, a creepy cycle is set in motion: If theater is inherently good, any failure to appreciate examples of that form is foisted onto the audience. After experiencing a theatrical event whose preordained value doesn't translate into anything resembling pleasure, audience members may be tempted to blame themselves for the lack. Disgruntled theatergoers are left with two options: Accept their own aesthetic shortcomings and cultivate a taste for the medium over the art, or call bullshit on the ruse and stay home and watch Desperate Housewives like a normal person.
At the very least, this pedigree-trumps-pleasure model threatens to limit theater attendance to ascetic aesthetes ready to pay their respects to the Ancient Art of the Stage and stock up on art karma, and to restrict the theater to a genre hobby, with no more to offer a contemporary entertainment seeker than a Renaissance Faire. At worst, it threatens to erode the knowledge that theater could ever be as exciting as a rock show or an action flick, but was always and forever a more or less pleasurable variation of vegetable eating.
Evidence of the deadly effects of romanticizing the theatrical form can be found at all levels of theater. Upon my arrival in Seattle, I caught the Seattle Rep's 1993 production of Six Degrees of Separation, which placed the genius of Pulitzer Prize–winning playwright John Guare (whose noble visage graced the cover of the program) on a pedestal that cast a shadow over the whole show; the result was a production in awe of its own script, with none of the actors bothering to create a character intelligent enough to make Guare's words sound like anything more than a theatrical recital. This June, I caught On the Boards' presentation of Anne Bogart's Death and the Ploughman, which placed a similar stultifying reverence on theatrical execution, with Bogart's unquestionably masterful staging of poetic text and artsy calisthenics serving to disguise an exercise as pointlessly indulgent and wanky as a '70s prog-rock guitar opus.
The dangers of romanticizing the form are particularly acute on the fringe. At its best, fringe theater makes a virtue of its limitations, and delivering a top-notch theatrical experience (or at least a witty approximation of one) on a shoestring budget becomes a key component of the form. But too often the driving factor behind fringe theater seems to be the sheer doing of it. This is understandable: For many young and fledgling theater-makers, seizing a space and throwing up a show is the only option available, and with little or no potential for money and glory, the execution becomes its own grisly reward. The dutiful re-creation of historically valuable experience has less to do with a viable theatrical experience and more to do with Civil War reenactments—an endeavor that may be rewarding for those involved, but nothing any sane person can be expected to relish as entertainment. Unfortunately, when the experience of participants is valued above that of the audience, a crucial balance is upset, and the result is rarely theater.
I'm projecting wildly. Plenty of people enjoy theater for theater's sake, and not all of them are masochistic perverts. At the big houses, attendance numbers are up, with the plummet brought by the dot-com collapse and 9/11 reportedly in reverse, and two imperiled groups—ACT and Empty Space—back among the (subsistence) living. Audiences for Seattle theater—in all its confused, hit-or-miss glory—do exist. I'm just not sure I can be counted among them.
It's possible my problem could be assuaged by a simple tweak of vocabulary, the introduction of terms to help distinguish between the type of theater revered by those who love the form for what it is—an ancient tradition of text, actor, and audience—and the type of theater adored by those who love the form for what it can do. There's a world of difference between theater that contents itself with continuing a noble tradition, and one that insists on exploding with new life, and the difference is nothing as simple as genre. Vital theater is found across the spectrum, from Intiman's The Light in the Piazza (brought to life by the genius collision of Elizabeth Spencer's morally complex novella and Adam Guettel's romantic score) to any of Mike Daisey's one-man shows (monologues that exist for the purpose of telling compelling stories, rather than glorifying their maker). Then there was Re-bar's Hedwig and the Angry Inch, which was smart enough to center its dense genderfuck psychodrama on a kick-ass rock band, and Printer's Devil's Hedda Gabler, a remount blessed with a central actor—in this case, Heidi Schreck—special enough to spark the whole proceedings with singular life.
This spark is what I'm looking for, no matter what theater I attend—that inspired element that makes a piece of theater transcend the tradition and limitations of its form to become a living, breathing entertainment, one that requires no "audience education" or dramaturgical essays to make its value clear. The word I'd like to use to describe theater that achieves this type of life is "good"— a term so subjective it has no worth as a common signifier. Besides, half the shows I've exited over the past few years were believed in the public imagination to be good.
Thus the search for living theater continues as it always has—with the necessary slog through the dead and pointless to find the gems, wherever they may be. But if you repeatedly fail to find what you're looking for, no one can blame you for skipping out.