Thoughts on Theatre: Is theatre live?

Theatre enthusiasts are often very excited by the “liveness” of the art form. From improv, to mistakes, to charismatic performers, to being in the same room as celebrities, to being in the same room with the audience and having a communal experience. And YES all of this liveness is wild, weird, and wonderful. But, is it “live”?

With a tip of the hat to Philip Auslander and his book Liveness, it might be better to think of liveness on a sliding scale where some things are more “live” than others. Albums are recorded, but usually have live musicians playing in a studio. Sports are usually played live, but broadcast on TV. And plays sometimes use pre-recorded multimedia such as music or projections, as well as technology such as microphones and speakers. In this sense, all performing arts are “mediated” — presented through a medium. Even the classical Greek theatres were designed for certain effects, visual and audio. Thus, even 2500 years ago, theatre artists were working via an artistic medium.

As a lover of Broadway musicals, my one pet peeve is that since they use mics, you actually hear their voices through the speakers. It is almost creepy, like a disembodied voice. This is another example of mediation in a “live” performance. Another simple example is a script. If a play script is a blueprint for a play production, then it too is a medium for theatre. And so, it is an artistic vehicle to control what happens on stage. One meant to provide an experience for the audience. It is mediated. So yes, theatre can be described as live in the common sense of the word, but when we think a little more deeply, it is more complicated than that: theatre is in fact mediated.

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