Theater is the ultimate art form. As a source of entertainment, it connects to the deepest aspects of our humanity and evokes inner emotions by utilizing storytelling methods both ancient and new. Humans have been sharing stories for all of known history and, as social creatures, audiences have gathered for those stories for as long as they have been told. Theater takes this most basic and uniquely human practice and elevates it beyond its origins.
There are innumerable dimensions to a live performance. In a play performed for an audience, the story created by the writers and the director is built by their individual perspectives, each one influenced by their past life experiences in ways both conscious and unconscious. A new dimension to the story is added via the attitudes adopted by the actors, all of whom influence the story with their own set of past experiences. The process of manifesting an idea by making it fit for the stage, like most creative processes, involves change during its transition from the mind of the artist into the physical world. Every designer works within a set of limitations, and those who design theatrical performances are forced to limit their manifestations of ideas to what is physically possible in reality. However, the original ideas have not these limitations. The original idea, unbound to physical and spatial restrictions, is the truest and most authentic form of art. Oil on canvas, a marble sculpture, and words on paper are all but physical manifestations of ideas limited in scope to that which is possible in reality, yet these are what comes to mind when one says “art.” Theater, too, faces limitations, though it maintains a unique relationship with temporal and spatial aspects of reality that elevates it above other art forms. Theatrical performances work within time and space while simultaneously interacting with physical people in addition to their non-physical human elements: their emotions.
The message shared through any form of art is not a physical one. The mission of The Play That Goes Wrong is not likely to present the must-see story demonstrating the buffoonery of a second-rate theater company but rather to allow people to laugh and thus experience emotions we are comfortable with; emotions that allow us to feel uplifted and secure. The gripping romantic drama within Midnight at the Never Get would be far less memorable without the psychedelic stage design, clean costumes, and explosive long tones bellowed by the actors during musical numbers. These are just some of the aspects of the show that exist in the physical world while transcending it, presenting ideas and themes and emotions to the audience in a space beyond a shared reality. Messages clear and subliminal, conscious and unconscious, hidden and in plain sight are what are shared with the viewers of performance art. These messages have no physical limitations, though their representations do. It is for this reason that the best plays are often the ones that can evoke the most emotion from viewers. The opulence of the stage design and costumes and extravagance of just about every other element of The Phantom of the Opera harnesses and manipulates human emotions, each element doing so in through its own methods. The music does so differently from the stage design, the dialogue from the lighting, and so on.
The creation of a live performance involves a huge number of unique perspectives. The perspectives of playwrights and directors are influenced by their past experiences both consciously and unconsciously. Those past experiences play huge role in determining what creative decisions should be made and how they choose to manifest their ideas. Whether the writers realize it or not, the life experiences of not only themselves but everyone that they have interacted with influence their artistic vision and perspective. These influences are unavoidable and sometimes unnoticeable. However, the influence of experience does not end with the writers of a theatrical work. Everyone involved with the performance — actors, musicians, designers — all allow past experiences to influence the way they carry out their work. Actors can individually and collectively interpret the scripts made by writers and carry over perspectives that are different from those without them. These perspectives too are influenced by past life experiences. With this, there are innumerable dimensions to the manifestation of an idea on stage. While there is a common thread in the somewhat clear goal established by the plot and purpose of a piece of writing, the perceptions and interpretations of the writer and the actor will inevitably differ, just as the perspectives and interpretations of anything, theater or not, is different from one person to the next.
It is generally accepted that all people interact with and influence each other in ways that they are and are not aware of. This is true between cast and crew members working on a production, though the most important interaction that all performers face is the one with their audience. Every member of the audience, just like every member of the cast and every writer and every member of the crew, has an attitude and ideology constructed in part by their past experiences. Each member of the audience visually interacts with the actors and mentally interacts with the ideas their lines and movements represent. Every member of the audience is influenced by every other member of the audience who are all in influenced by what they hear, how they feel, what they did that day, what they ate for dinner, the environment in which they grew up, where they work, where they live….
The factors that influence one’s perception of the world are innumerable. These innumerable factors that influence one person’s idea — one person‘s perception — is multiplied by the dozens, hundreds, or thousands of people who compose the audience for a performance. These hundreds of thousands of perceptions are viewing the same performance, though they all understand it differently. No two people can have the same exact understanding of performance. What makes the theater unique from other publicly-interpreted art forms is that this constant unconscious communication between audience members and actors and writers and crew happens at one moment, a simultaneously experienced moment, every time.
Unlike a television or internet program where a scene can be delivered to one person at 3:00pm and to another at 8:45pm, the members of an audience during a performance all experience a line, song, or emotion at the exact same moment in time. That moment in time is completely unique and, once passed, can never be completely replicated. Every theater performance is the same in a physical sense though different ideologically, different in a sense outside of the realm of space and time in that the audience is different, the cast is a bit older, the weather changes, etc. This is a characteristic unique to theater.
Every work of art is the manifestation of a mental construction into the physical world, though it is the mental construction itself that serves as true art. Art exists beyond the realm of space and time and beyond the realm of normal communication. It exists in a space which is entirely emotional. Theater is the only art form which is dependent on the physical world in both space and time. The performer requires a space to the perform, and the audience must be there at the same time to view them. This artist-viewer relationship is unique to the theater and presents challenges unlike any other art form; the performer must have a plan and stick to it throughout the time the are joined by an audience. There is no true fix for a forgotten line or missed cue because once a moment passes, it’s gone for good. The forgotten line or missed cue becomes a part of the performance, a part of the art.
With terms such as these, it can be stated that each performance carried out to a script is all the same, yet totally different from the last. While the same lines can be read any day at any time by any person, the way they are recited today will inevitably be different from the way they are recited tomorrow. Even though an actor can maintain perfect consistency in each performance in inflection and tone when reciting lines, they live through new experiences and develop or forget ideas that make their way into their art with or without the consent of the actor. Midnight at the Never Get would likely be performed and received well if it was performed somewhat secretly in an area in which gay marriage was illegal, though after years of struggling and fighting for its legalization, subsequent performances would take on a new meaning. The audience and actors alike would take on a new perspective towards the show, the show itself would take on a new role as a record of history.
Every theater performance, even ones based on a true story, is fake. The actors are acting out an intangible story, a construction by the hands of playwrights. With this, one can claim that theater is fake. Theater can be seen, heard, and touched, however, as previously noted, the main goal of a performance is not to share a visual or auditory experience alone as this would be insufficient in garnering interest. The main goal of a performance is to evoke emotions from the audience that they otherwise would not have likely experienced.
The ideas and themes presented to an audience by performers are not tangible. One cannot hold in their hand the music note that makes makes a person tear up or an actor’s cry for help that makes someone briefly panic. The sounds can be heard, yes, but the sounds are not the main focus; the emotions they evoke are. Pain, sorrow, excitement, and happiness are all emotions that cannot be fully identified, and these intangible elements are at the root of the success of theater as an art form. All are fake in that they do not physically exist and thus are mental constructions built by people.
All that is necessary for a theatrical work is a performer and an audience. The audience can be a crowd of one and the actor engaging in any activity that carries a message. Whether the performer is an American Sign Language instructor reciting silent poetry, a mime shooting up a saloon, or a curly-haired professor destroying a mirror, the important aspect of the show is the relationship between them and the audience, even if the audience is a crowd of students, many of whom, quite frankly, just want to go home. All of the listed performers elicit from the audience some sort of emotion and tell a story. The ASL instructor and mime both tell stories without speaking, though they do so in very different ways; one drawing most focus to the hands and lips, the other utilizing their entire body in a very physical and highly mobile manner. The mirror-wrecking professor tells part of his story through words, though it is the act of taking a hammer to a mirror, one that involves no speech, that is essential to the narrative. While their methods differ, their goal of communicating a story is the same, and the sense of curiosity they create among audiences by doing so is a testament to their skills.
Although ideas can not be truly shared in their purest form, their physical manifestations can be as works of art. Words on or off a page and paint on a canvas are examples of such manifestations, though their physical limitations mean that they serve more as fables representing themes than they do as themes themselves. Most artistic mediums do not involve an instant and constant communication with non-artists. Theater, however, does. The fact that the audience is present at the moment a story is being shared and ideas illustrated means that there is a connection between viewer and artist unlike any other art form. Whether a Broadway production or a simple poetry recitation, the goal of a theatrical performance is to evoke emotion and share ideas. This is the goal of most works of art, though the theater’s accomplishment of it is wholly unique.