The magic of live theatre
I’ve been involved in the performing arts for most of my life. From singing in church at a very young age with my older brother to spending many a year in instrumental music, choir and theatre, it’s a hobby that has always given me joy. I’ve never considered myself particularly amazing at it, but it’s been a fun way to keep busy, especially considering how terrible I was (and am) at sports.
I had the absolute privilege of being involved in a community theatre production of Shrek the Musical this past summer and I’ve also been emptying my pocketbook seeing Broadway shows this year such as Book of Mormon, Lion King, Jersey Boys, and Les Miserables.
Whether it’s amateur or professional, I am continually amazed at what an incredible product is created when passionate, creative people get together, and I think there are a few key factors that contribute to the awesomeness of live theatre.
1. It takes a village
Like many great things, it takes a whole bunch of people to produce great theater. When you applaud and cheer loudly at a show, the lead or your favorite comedic sidekick may be top of mind, but that program filled with a whole lot of names can’t be forgotten either. A great performance is only as strong as its weakest link, and chances are, many of the real stars of the show will never be seen or given the credit they are due.
A show is not only composed of its performers on top of the stage, but rather is built by a community of engaged team members including but not limited to: actors, dancers, musicians, stage technicians, stage managers, prop masters, directors, choreographers, conductors, producers, costumers, set designers, lighting designers, audio engineers, ushers, and box office managers (to name a few).
Think about that for just a moment.
A show would fall horribly apart if any one of those roles weren’t being executed at an extremely high level. At any given moment, the conductor and pit orchestra have to be tightly synced with the performers, who have to say the right lines and move in the right places for the technical crew to do their job, who have to move quickly enough so that the orchestra’s 24 second interlude will cover the set change…..you get the picture. It’s truly a wonder that so many different voices and personalities and egos can all come together so perfectly to create one wonderfully packaged piece of art.
2. Every performance is different
Because it takes so many people synced up at the same time, a really exciting (and occasionally terrifying — y’all know what I mean) part of the theatre process is that no show is exactly the same. Sure, by the end of a run you might have things down to a science, but it remains that nothing will ever happen exactly the way you intend it to.
And that’s what makes it fun.
Maybe a lead character will get a little bold and throw in an extra joke or two. Maybe the lead actress will come in on her entrance at a different spot every night making you hold on for dear life and hope that you can follow her. Maybe the audience will react differently to a certain part of the show or applaud a little louder. Maybe the set will break. For a performer, these differences can be hilarious or scary or ridiculous, but it certainly keeps everyone on their toes.
These sorts of “unplanned” moments can be what separates good performers from great ones. It may be a conductor saving the day by repeating a vamp a couple more times, or perhaps an actor making up a few lines on the spot. Regardless of how each show winds up being presented to the audience, I can say from experience that it’s an absolute thrill ride never knowing what exactly is coming next.
I’d venture to say it’s similar for the audience too. Whenever I’ve seen a show multiple times, I always pick up on new tidbits, watch someone new, hear lines differently or find that a different part of the show resonates more or less with me. Great theatre is like a great book in that way.
3. The audience is in on it too
Any performer will tell you that there is a world of difference between the last dress rehearsal (without an audience) and the first preview or performance. I think back to my days on top of the stage remembering each first time that we would have bodies in the seats. Just from audience reactions I would find new lines that I had never known were funny or songs that resonated more with them than me, and it reinforced the idea that a show is a living, breathing thing.
The audience is every bit as important and just as much a part of the secret sauce of live theatre too. If there’s no one to enjoy what’s going on — who is it all really for anyway?
Theatre in its most basic form is storytelling, and without an audience, there’s no one to connect with the story that’s being told. To laugh and cry and experience a whole palette of emotions — that’s when theatre really gets fun.
4. A digital detox worth paying for
I also think there’s something to be said that live theatre is one of the last surviving phone-free events. No longer can we be without that addictive little personal assistant while at the dinner table or movie theatre or conference, but the theatre is one place that actually still has pretty decent success at getting people to put away their phones for a short while.
Being fully present at a performance can get you to experience a show in the way that the director and/or playwright intended it to be. Or didn’t intend it to be. And let’s be honest, if those ushers weren’t there to yell at you to put your phone away and stop taking pictures, you’d probably spend most of the first act trying to get the perfect Instagram shot, and the second half livetweeting the thing.
And I’ve done it too — I paid darn good money for those seats, I want everyone to know how great my life is and what a fabulous show I’m seeing!
But I think it’s important to experience art and culture at face value — when you’re at the show, you’re there, and nothing else really matters. It’s an opportunity to escape from reality for a few minutes and get wrapped up in a completely different world.
And don’t we all need that every once in awhile?