The subject of the theater is, at its core, community. The nurturing substance of theater is not only the story that the play relates and the manner in which the story is expressed, but it is also the actual event of a particular community gathering together to experience the “rite” of enactment. A “rite” is the performance of a ritual and the theater contains vast amounts of ritual.
In 1987 my dear friend, the actor Henry Stram, was performing the role of Cusins in a production of George Bernard Shaw’s play Major Barbara at Baltimore Center Stage. Towards the end of the rather long and windy third act during a sleepy Sunday matinee, Henry made a crucial mistake. His character had an important plot line about his parentage and his appropriateness to take over the Undershaft Munitions Works. In describing why he should be entitled to run the foundry, Henry misspoke a line from the play and rather than saying “My mother is my father’s deceased wife’s sister; and in this island I am consequently a foundling!” he said instead: “My Father is my brother’s deceased wife’s sister; and in this island I am consequently a foundling.” To his immense surprise, the entire audience, who Henry had until that moment supposed was a sleepy, blue haired mass, gasped loudly, as one, at his slip. And Henry at that moment realized that audiences DO, in fact, listen; that what we say on the stage really does register.
A community in the act of listening is a powerful force. The quality of cooperation amidst a theater audience generates its particular brand of experience, associations and sensations. The potential intelligence of any group emerges within the time set aside for the performance. The performers are dependent upon the mood and receptive abilities of the particular community formed to receive it. This fact can work for the benefit or the detriment of any performance because ultimately it is the audience that ends up teaching itself how to experience a production. Being in a group can make us smarter or dumber, depending upon the circumstances, the politics and the atmosphere of the gathering. In the collaboration of attention and receptivity, audience members share the potential to engender nothing less than a mutual rapture of interest. The director William Ball, in his seminal book entitled “A Sense of Direction” wrote that he considers an audience heroic because it spends the hours gathered in the theater NOT thinking about itself.
Unlike film and television, theater is unfinished until the audience completes the equation. When you enter the theater nothing is guaranteed; you do not really know what is going to happen. How you watch and what you are doing while you watch will have an impact on what is happening on the stage. The potential for a powerful communal experience in the act of coming together is a constant incentive to going to the theater. The audience teams up with one another to have an impact upon the stage and also learns from one another how to watch the play. Within a very short time, minutes into the rite of any performance, actors generally sense what kind of audience they are dealing with and adjust accordingly.
But in opening ourselves to other people, we take the risk that the experience may not be reciprocal. An unsuccessful gathering can render confusion and disorientation. Theater is incomplete. The audience completes the experience of constructing the fiction. But there is always doubt present because the story that is embodied isn’t actually happening. It is fiction. The audience’s reading of a performance is actually an act of interpretation. The ambiguity generated by the simultaneous believing and non-believing creates a certain critical distance that Antonin Artaud called the theater and its double.
The subject of the theater is not only the fictional community within a given play but also the actual communities that come together within the time set aside for performance: the actors, the audience and those behind the scenes of any production. The subject of a classic play is the history of audiences and creators who have encountered and interpreted the play in the past. The subject of the theater is always, in part, the act of being a community.
In a recent op-ed piece in the New York Times, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks compared the Darwinian instinct for survival to the empathetic community dedicated impulse.
We hand on our genes as individuals but we survive as members of groups, and groups can exist only when individuals act not solely for their own advantage but for the sake of the group as a whole.
These days we live much of our lives as individuals struggling to survive. The survival instinct is powerful and can ambush any moment of being. This fast responding emotive, instinctive individual response is derived from the ancient parts of the brain, the fight or flight, the fear and protective mechanism. On the other hand, the group consideration is a slower function involving restraint that is piloted by the pre-frontal cortex. Sacks proposes, in his piece, that religion exists to provide people with a way to slow down and enter the realm of altruism and empathy for others. I believe that this aspect of togetherness is shared with a theater audience as well.
I am aware that I feel and act as an entirely different person depending upon how my body and brain respond to momentary circumstances. When panicked, my response tends to be quick, impulsive and at times violent. My ancient brain and body respond to primal prompts with fear and self-preservation. The dreaded chemical cortisol shoots through my body and I do not think things through. Acting in self-interest, I become an example of Darwinian survival mechanisms. I am selfish and protective. I withdraw and lash out simultaneously. I think of my own wellbeing and I do not care for the wellbeing of others. This is not a happy circumstance. In moments like these, I do not feel good or in harmony with the world around me. I feel self protective, jealous and removed from others.
These strategies that developed over human evolution to help us survive from one day to the next and ensure that we procreate and thrive as a species, are also the tactics that can cause us emotional pain. In the service of our own survival and that of our progeny, we create boundaries between others and ourselves. My atavistic self is also a lonely self. In my attempt at self-preservation, I seek to control my environment. I try to stop the flow of change. I create boundaries. I attempt to grab whatever pleasure is available and hold on for dear life. I want to win. I want to succeed.
On the other hand, if I can slow down and channel the altruistic nature that is accessible to all humans, the experience of life and relationships is completely different, less lonely, less egotistical and self-serving. This slowing down demands patience and purposeful restraint. In the midst of the chemical rush of cortisol flowing throughout the body, I try to recognize the impulse to act selfishly and self-protectively, but instead of lashing out, I try to practice moderation and patience.
Amidst the jittery barrage of life in our present over-stimulated environment, it is increasingly difficult to acquire focus, patience and restraint. What might provide the opportunity to steady and focus the senses? What might help us negotiate our fidgety, edgy world with grace? How can we find space for reflection and contemplation amidst our daily lives? Sacks proposes religion as a method for slowing down. Historically, the theater originated in the realm of religion. Communities gathered together to consider their lives together in the light of the larger universe. I think that part of what both art and theater offers us is an instrument to re-pattern habitual reactions and find the eternal in the midst of the quickly accelerating present. Contemplation of art in a group, in a community, can help rejigger expectations and calm down the body and connect with the past as well as with those around us. Interacting with art in the presence of others requires mutual respect, stillness and receptivity, which in turn produce a sense of shared tranquility and a rebalanced sensory field.