Tune In, Turn On, Drop Out

The risks and rewards of watching theater

Actress Sarah Bernhardt plays the role of Hamlet in 1899 London
Actress Sarah Bernhardt plays the role of Hamlet in 1899 London

Movies are grand, but theater is alive — something to remember as the 2013-2014 season settles into its groove.

When we recline in our cozy seats before the big screen, we are supplicating before a product, a bit of prefabricated horseplay that, despite our various responses, is as inflexible and immutable as a ride on a roller coaster.

As entertainment, movies are Calvinistic and corroborative, asking only that we acknowledge what will always happen and, by turns, what will never cease happening. Film, as art, is passive; even a masterpiece like Citizen Kane remains as inert, and incontrovertible, as the “Venus de Milo.”

Theater, on the other hand, is a process that never ceases. It is a perpetual becoming. You will never, ever encounter the same Iago twice, and the temperature on that Hot Tin Roof is as fickle as a Northwest afternoon.

Art has lost something in the age of mechanical reproduction. Movies, like recorded music, don’t actually need you; Let It Be has done its work, and it exists now in a vacuum. You can admire it or not, but at this point it doesn’t give a shit.

Theater, like literature, does not exist in a vacuum. A printed page can’t read itself to you. It asks that you meet it halfway, in order to help it become. Engaging in becoming involves a risk — the book might suck — but when the risk pays off, some sort of miracle has happened. It changes you. It becomes a part of you.

Theater is the same way: It needs an audience. Unlike a movie, a play or a musical unfolds itself anew with each living day, like a heliotrope. Every one of these blossomings is a risk because theater is created in the moment, in front of your face, by human beings. And the risk involved is the same risk that life asks of us all: the risk that we may fail, which implies the possibility that we may succeed, and soar.

If we didn’t relish this risk — admire it, seek it, need it — folks would have stopped going to concerts long ago. Why not just listen to the record again?

Why not, indeed.

Like all art, theater is sacred. What makes theater extra-special, however, is that it actually engages you in its holiness. Theater asks you to help it become itself. That’s incredibly exciting. But how do we do this? And, more importantly, how do we continue to do this in the age of Angry Birds and attention deficit disorder, when every digital distraction is literally right at our fingertips?

The answer is surprisingly simple, and easy as pie. We must engage theater. We must tune in, turn on and drop out.

Tune in to the idea that attending (to) a play is not the same as going to a movie. Theatrical audiences must overcome the passive pose — the pose that says, “Here we are, now entertain us.” Engage in the process of theater. It is a living process, a process of becoming in three dimensions, full of sound and fury created by living, breathing people who are themselves engaged in perpetual creation. It’s a beautiful thing.

As an audience, we have an investment in the actors on stage. They feel and feed on our energy, in the same way the Ducks feel and feed on the home-crowd buzz at Autzen Stadium. This is the turning-on part of the equation. The only “fourth wall” in theater, really, is the wall of our own ignorance at being involved in a work of art. We break the fourth wall with our active attention. We break through to art.

And finally, drop out of the rat race for a couple of hours. Texting can wait. Life can wait. Art is a form of playing, and there is no more active, involved kind of artful playing than the playing of a play. Participate in it. Open yourself to the risk, the striving, that is taking place on stage in real time. The rewards for such a risk — for becoming an active audience — can be tenfold.