The joy of good, live theatre

Courier article
Well, after an enjoyable cameo role in the panto I’ve managed to get myself a substantial part in the next Mersea Island Players production at the MICA. I’m acting as the director of a small amateur dramatic society, who at one point is rehearsing a part acting as a vicar, so I’m definitely cast against type.

In amidst all the enjoyable strains of learning lines and rehearsing I’ve been thinking about the nature of the theatre, and why ‘good, live theatre’ is an irreplaceable experience. I say that despite being something of a movie addict myself, who hardly ever goes to watch live performances any more. So why do I think theatre is irreplaceable? Well, it’s similar to the difference between work which is done by craft and that which is manufactured.

With live theatre, the emphasis is upon the particular moment. There is something happening in this place and at this time – there are real human beings watching and being watched – and, of course, there is the ever-present risk of something going wrong, whether that be forgetting lines or having an accident or lighting failure and so on. In other words, there is something unique about live theatre as an event. Contrast this with a movie, especially a modern blockbuster. The very essence of what is happening is that it is both manufactured and repeatable. Rather than a direct human interaction between performer and audience, the actors are often recorded in front of a ‘green screen’ on which all the special effects will later be portrayed. This is a fascinating process, and the results range from the awful (Star Wars prequels) to the groundbreaking (the Matrix) yet even when the results are good, it is a very different experience to watch a movie rather than a play.

There is something undeniably primitive about watching another human being act out a story. Small children know and enjoy this intuitively, and will happily play dress-up and act out stories for hours on end. Adults often have that sense of excited wonder drained out of them by all the vicissitudes of life – and the wonderful thing about ‘good, live theatre’ is that is provides a context in which that sense of wonder and engagement can be resurrected. It’s not an accident that I’m using religious language there, for there is an ancient link between theatre and religious ritual – indeed, there is an ongoing academic debate about which emerged from the other. Was it that religious ritual was a particular form of theatre, or that theatre was a particular form of ritual? Whichever is the case, the nature of being able to share in a common experience, journeying through a common story and being changed by that process – this is right at the heart of what makes theatre so special.

This was well known to the ancient Greeks, from whom much of our understanding of theatre descends. They talked about something called ‘theōria’ – a word that has come down to us as ‘theory’ but, as is so often the case, that ‘coming down to us’ is a descent in more ways than one. For the Greeks, theōria was something immensely practical. Aristotle argued that theōria, the philosophical consideration of the nature of things, is the highest and most enjoyable activity there can be, it is the central purpose of the best possible human life. To our ears, this sounds like something very abstract and almost passive. In translations of Aristotle, theōria is normally rendered as ‘contemplation’ which suggests a single, steady gaze held on a single impressive object, like a telescope focused on the peak of a high mountain. This is very much not what Aristotle had in mind. On the contrary, what Aristotle had in mind was something called “sacralized spectating” – the sort of very vigorous and engaged communal experience that comes from a community watching something like the Olympic Games together (either then or now) – or, of course, watching a tragedy in the theatre at Athens. In other words, to participate by watching is at the heart of what the greatest thinkers in antiquity felt was the best sort of life. Our modern media gives us many ways in which to do this – and a dark movie theatre is a very good way in which to do this – yet there is something irreplaceable about ‘good, live theatre’. It is unique, it is profoundly engaging, and it is chthonically human.

Which is why we on Mersea are so extremely fortunate to have the MICA centre available for such productions, and if my view of how the coming years are likely to unfold has any merit, I believe that we will be making much more use of such community resources in the future. To have a neutral community space that can be adapted for such a purpose is a great blessing – long may it last. So please do come along! There are two one-act plays being performed each night on Friday 3rd and Saturday 4th May at 7.30pm. They contain adult content (theme and language) and even though I’m partisan, I do think that the scripts are hilarious – the plays have been performed to great acclaim at the Edinburgh festival for example. I just hope that we actors can do justice to the lines…