Theatre Lesson

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Read the following lesson and then answer the discussion questions following the Discussion Rubric. In order to answer the discussion questions correctly, you must read the lesson first!

LESSON: BEGIN AT THE BEGINNING

What is “theatre?”

Why does it matter to you?

Why should anybody bother studying theatre?

Why is this professor asking me a bunch of questions he knows I don’t know the answer to?

Well, any quest for knowledge begins with questions–I’ve started with mine, but I hope we can answer yours, as you have them.

Theatre is a nearly 5,000-year-old art form, as old as written history, and indeed probably older. Think about your completely normal two-year-old. They need no instruction in how to play pretend: they do it naturally and spontaneously. The impulse to “act”, to play, to take on a role, some have argued, is ingrained in the cognitively modern human.

Thus, the techniques that have been used and refined over the centuries in both literary drama and in commemorative community performances reflect some of the most basic human tools for attracting attention, telling stories, entertaining each other, and bonding communities together.

In this unit, we’ll have a couple of discussions where we work out some of the reasons why we pay attention to the things we love to watch, whether TV, films, or media on the Internet, and why some memories of performance stick with us. I’ll help guide us toward an understanding of how these entertainments hook us in and keep us hooked on their stories and images.

SOME DEFINITIONS

Theatre is just one word of a connected constellation of words surrounding the notions of playing pretend. The word “performance,” which means a lot of different things to many different people (which means it’s a “contested concept”–an idea people don’t agree on), means the act or process of carrying out something, or executing or fulfilling some goal. The word “performance” comes from Middle French, the verb “parfournir,” which means “to complete, or to finish.” You can see that such a definition allows us to define a wide range of human activities as “performances.” Church services are performances. Political conventions are. Sporting events. Proms. Carnivals. Birthday parties. Stand-up comedy acts. And there are probably many others you can imagine. So in this huge category of performance, theatre is one kind of performance. “Theatre” can be defined as the enactment of a dramatic story in front of an audience. What do I mean by “dramatic?” Dramatic is that which relates to “drama,” an ancient Greek word that comes from “dran,” the verb meaning “to do.” A dramatic story, then, is going to be one where things happen, and these things form a chain of events, each action linking to the next in the chain.

THEATRE–the enactment of a dramatic story in front of an audience–also has several other characteristics that define it.

LIVE — that is, occurs when audience and performers share the same space and time with each other, they are co-present to one another

CONFLICT — the basis of all drama is conflict. We’ll talk more in the next couple of modules about exactly what this means.

HUMAN SCALE — theatre is concerned with what humans care about. Even if you think you’re watching talking beavers (Chronicles of Narnia), penguins (Happy Feet), lions and wildebeest (The Lion King), animate toys (Toy Story 1, 2, 3), or huge alien robots that turn into cars (Transformers), what is being depicted are those things that matter to humans: relationships, interconnection, conflict, self-worth, goals, etc.

TRANSITORY — theatre is transitory in that once it unfolds in time, those particular moments cannot be recaptured. Once a show has ended its run, that particular experience cannot be recaptured, even if you record it. There is no media invented that can preserve the precise interactive dynamics of live performance.

IMMEDIATE — the flip side of transitory is that theatre is always immediate: it is occurring in front of you with urgency as actors work towards their goals with as much energy as they can muster. Theatre is always “now”–it’s happening now, it’s asking you to pay attention NOW. This sense of the immediate is essential.

RESILIENT — theatre is an old art form. In some ways, it is a primitive art form, if primitive means “lacking technology,” because theater requires only spectators and performers in order to take place. But of course the history of human civilization is in many ways a history of successive technological revolutions that alter life and culture. Despite this, this primitive medium of theatre has survived and adapted to new technologies, becoming the foundation of virtually all entertainment in our digital world. So while live theatre might form a smaller and smaller slice of our particular culture’s entertainment pie, the principles of good theatre have been picked up, used, and refined by more technologically advanced media like film, TV, and the Internet. Thus theatre has been, and I believe will continue to be, resilient in the face of technology and other challenges.

One of the ways that theatre has infiltrated our culture in many ways is through the concept of THEATRICALITY.

If you remember only one thing from this class I want you to remember this concept and its implications for your life. THEATRICALITY is the quality of anything that captures an audience’s attention. It could be snappy and interesting dialogue. Or half-naked beautiful bodies. Or a python under a chair. Or an unexpected reveal. Or an explosion.

But theatricality is not limited to what happens on stage. Think about who and what might be trying to get your attention all the time. The media, corporations, advertisers, and many others are intent on capturing your attention because that will increase their ability to make money by selling you something, or getting you to read something so you’ll be exposed to people who want to sell you something. If The New York Times or Fox News — or any media outlet — is trying to capture your attention through theatrical means, does that mean they are always going to tell you the whole truth and nothing but the truth?

I hope you can see that theatricality is a double-edged sword. On the one hand, it makes our entertainment worth watching. On the other hand, techniques originally developed in the service of fictional attention-grabbing now prevail across a wide swath of our culture, as various entities seek out our eyeballs and our attention.

Being aware of what theatricality is, and how it works to attract your attention, can give you the opportunity to make more active choices about where you direct your attention, and how you interpret the messages you receive. Don’t let your mind be colonized by people who know how to use theatricality to manipulate you: instead, see theatricality for what it is: a tried and true technique that seeks to harness the power of your attention.

Now that we know about theatre and theatricality, let’s talk a little bit about the audience.

Your book divides the audience experience into two kinds:

  • Individual
  • Collective

Your individual experience as an audience member is shaped by many things: who you are, your personality, your background, your past experiences, and your expectations regarding what you’re about to experience. That is, if you have attended a lot of live theatre, you may have a different set of expectations given that you know more about the form and the kinds of things that might happen, say in a musical, than someone who has never been to live theatre before. As an audience member, your individual perspective has an important influence on the experience you ultimately have in the theatre. That is to say, your attitude can definitely affect what kind of time you have in the theatre. Start with a, “wow, what will I see I’ve never seen before?” attitude, and that will make all the difference from someone who says, “Oh, man, this is boring, I wanna be home playing video games.” The starting point for each individual matters.

As a group, though, the individuals in the audience combine to create what Gustave Le Bon termed the “collective mind.” That is, an audience may be made up of diverse individuals, but that audience also has collective characteristics and collective behavior that may be very different from the individuals who compose it.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS:

In this discussion, I want you to post about two things.

1) Think about your own experiences at live performances. What one or two things still stick in your memory about those experiences? I want you to select the most memorable one or two moments of your live performance experience, and try to come up with some reasons why you remember those moments so clearly. Please share them with us.

2) Now turn your attention away from live performance, and to your favorite TV shows, films, YouTube series, absolutely ANYTHING you love to watch on a screen. What are your favorites? And most importantly, WHY do you like them so much? Be as specific as you can when you share your favorites with us.

 

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