The fragility of theatre

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I saw a fair amount of theatre in 2013: nearly three dozen full-length plays, a couple dozen one-acts, and eighteen Fringe Festival entries. They included works that were hits on Broadway (Next to Normal) to avant-guard experiments (Anton, Neko, Kuri), classics (Long Day’s Journey into Night) and site-specific local theatre (Cry Me One). The only commonality I can think of is that in each case, I shared the space with a group of actors (or a single actor, in the solo shows like Chesapeake).

I am struck by how theatre is both durable and fragile. We will see plays that have been performed over and over for the past 2500 years, and we can experience a work that we love as disappointing because of an unsatisfactory performance by an actor or director. Even reputation and healthy budgets are no guarantee. One of my favorite plays is Tom Stoppard’s Arcadia. The first time I saw it, I was blown away by it’s intelligence, cleverness, and it’s heart. Naturally, several years later, I was thrilled when it showed up on the season of a well-regarded regional theatre. But that performance bored me to tears. I re-read the play, wondering if I had over-estimated its significance: no, the text was still remarkable. The following year, a small 40-seat community theatre mounted a production. I was reluctant to go, given the meager resources that company had, but they did a wonderful job.

The image that comes to mind is that of a butterfly. They look incredibly frail, they are carried off course by the smallest gust of wind, and yet, they can successfully migrate for thousands of miles, oscillating between their summer and winter grounds over generations.

Unlike film, in which there is a definitive, recorded performance that is identical on every viewing, theatre is a creature that we encounter anew each time. That is its strength and its liability, but also the reflection of its humanity.

“Hundreds of butterflies flitted in and out of sight like short-lived punctuation marks in a stream of consciousness without beginning or end.”
― Haruki Murakami, 1Q84

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