Thursday, August 23, 2007

What is Theater’s Secret Weapon?

This isn’t a Theater vs Other Forms post. Really. Every form has its own strengths –a not-so-secret secret weapon, as it were. Lately I’ve been wondering exactly what theater’s secret weapon really is.

First, a little context. I’ve been burning through the 24th Annual Years Best Science Fiction collection edited by Gardner Dozois. It’s a pretty good collection of short stories. And as always, my playwright mind is always running in the background, trying to figure out how I might adapt some of these short stories.
Short stories are a form of story-telling. Film is a form of story-telling. So is theater.

The not-so-secret weapon of short fiction is the omniscient narrative voice. It is a direct link to the mind of the writer – or at least the mind of the persona relating the story. Great observations about the state of the world can be uttered directly, like this excerpt from The Highway Men by Ken McLeod

The Bodach – the Old Man – is what the locals call Osama Bin Laden. Nobody knows if he’s still alive or not. Maybe he’s getting the Reverse [aging] treatment but he’s not in a healthy line of work. His gloating videos still come out every now and again. But that doesn’t prove anything. You could say the same about Mick Jagger.

In films, the secret weapon is the wealth of visual information. In an article I read about the film Children of Men, the reviewer spoke of a “visual palimpsest.” So much information about the history of a location in the visual details of scrolling terrorist warnings and graffiti. We’re not even talking special effects, here. Just rich visual detail that conveys in a more immediate way than description or dialog.

So what is theater’s secret weapon? We can turn a phrase, and with a good designer, get some layered visual information going. But that kind of thinking makes theater the inferior cousin of other narrative forms.

People usually start talking about the fact that theater is live – but I’ve yet to be persuaded that just the fact of liveness is the secret weapon. If the secret weapon is in live performance, why do so few of our playwriting forms explicitly embrace it?

I’ve been thinking more about ritual of theater being the secret weapon. Inspired in part by this post on Superfluities by George Hunka.

What are you thinking?


Devilvet said...

I don't think that the weapon is its 'live' quality but its emmersive quality. If you emmerse the audience in the experience then you got something film doesnt have

GregRomero said...

Erik Ramsey-- send me your best email address (want to chat about your book):

rock on, everybody.


Amy said...

I think the "secret weapon" is the real-time psychic (or in the case of interactive pieces - literal) dialogue between the stage and the audience. I believe in the zeitgeist of the room -- the energy created with people sharing a space, sharing an experience, participating in an event. You can't get that experience in any other art form.