I recently attended a talk our Artistic Director gave at the Barrington Public Library in which he talked about the future of American theater and its place in our democracy. He brought up topics like why it seems so easy for people (and politicians) to dismiss theater and art in our current economy and how theater functions in our culture and society in comparison to television (note: this comes from a man who hasn’t owned a TV in 15 years and rarely sees movies), “The television does not care that you exist…television is not culture; it’s commerce.” And, I must confess, I agree with him to some extent. I think my media studies classes, the writer’s strike a few years ago and the lack of interesting (and quality?) programming right now are why I watch so little TV…well, that and a lack of cable too, I suppose. I’m not about to chuck my TV out the window by any means, but there are better things to do than sitting in front of the tube just vegging out to one of the many mind-numbing reality TV shows out there. Anyway, I digress…
He took us on a journey through ancient Greece, the Elizabethan era and all the way to the 19th century and Thomas Edison. Thomas Edison? In a talk about theater? And with that came the most intriguing idea of the afternoon: how the invention of the light bulb has actually pushed us further into the dark. Theater has gone from being an interactive experience to a more passive one. When watching a play, you tend to look at whatever is being illuminated on stage, because that’s what you should be looking at, right? If it’s got a spot light on it it must be important therefore that’s where ones eyes should be. Many theater-goers prefer their theater this way and that’s fine. After thinking about it, I guess I usually do too. But in the past year I have seen a few plays that dared to pull people out of the dark, even if only for a little while, and break down the fourth wall thereby directly inviting the audience into the world of play – The Blonde, the Brunette and the Vengeful Redhead (one of my favorite performances ever!), Decaffeinated Tragedy, Let Me Down Easy and Shooting Star to name a few – and, I have to say, it’s a refreshing change from simply sitting quietly in the dark. Wouldn’t being in the dark performance after performance make theater seem like such a mundane event? After all, isn’t getting people out of their comfort zone and allowing them to experience new things a big part of the theatrical experience?
We made other “improvements” so that our work could be more controlled, more featured. We put all of our theaters inside black boxes. We removed any visual feature of the space around us, so that you would look only in the direction that we wanted you to look. But I’d like to ask you a question – if you had to think of a place where something magical would happen, where something exciting would emerge, would you think of a black box? Fuchsia box maybe, maybe taupe box? I don’t know, but we’re in a black box. I’m starting to have that death feeling again.