Great expectations

Theater is still a taste worth acquiring, even in the age of special effects

A recent piece in The New York Times profiled a bit of missionary work by an American playwright: Wendy Wasserstein took a half-dozen kids from the Bronx to different plays in the city, then went for pizza afterward and asked them what they thought. The piece ostensibly had to do with the graying (and consequent dwindling) of American theater audiences, but it spoke broadly to the dilemma of theater as a flickering national light. The reactions of the kids were mixed, but most agreed that their expectations of theater had been overturned: They thought it was an "old person's thing," and many were surprised at how much they got into it.

Expectation is a loaded word when you talk about theater and why most folks nowadays, young and middle-aged, don't consider live comedies and dramas the same kind of entertainment option that they do movies or video rentals on a weekend night. Certainly, comparing these dramatically different viewing experiences is simplistic, but it still serves an illuminating point: People know what to expect of a movie in a multiplex or an art house or on video, so they can develop moods around those expectations. They can "feel like" renting a movie or standing in line at the box office tonight. Too few people "feel like" going to a night of theater, because they're a little cowed, not sure what the experience will be.

Unfortunately, their trepidation in too many cases scars their expectations of theater, and in the process scars the primitive art of theater itself. At the risk of imprisonment for betraying the Theatrical Official Secrets Act, I'll say it: Too many theater-audience virgins either will be bored or will feel inferior to the proceedings because they don't understand why their reactions to the show aren't as visceral, as adrenaline-driven, as they are to film and television. What am I not getting, they wonder, that causes those people to rave about theater's three-dimensionality, the intimate thrust, the illicit congress where no technology and (sometimes) only an invisible fourth wall separates me and the actors?

Are these talents enough without special effects? Kent Rice-Williams and Laurel Whitsett are alone onstage in Theatre Quorum's The Turn of the Screw.
Are these talents enough without special effects? Kent Rice-Williams and Laurel Whitsett are alone onstage in Theatre Quorum's The Turn of the Screw.

It's not the fault of the disenchanted, and it's definitely not the fault of (good) theater. Live production must become a ritual, a habit, in the way film has for millions, but movies are addictive in a faster, deadlier, and more seductive way: They're the crack cocaine to theater's cannabis. Movies rush through your veins, sometimes faster (Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace) or slower (The General's Daughter), but always until your brain throbs. Beyond something like Broadway's The Lion King, which is a mega-lucrative attempt to re-create cinematic illusion onstage, theater is an art form that creeps toward you. But if you can train yourself to scrutinize, really notice, its approach, it will flood over you in a stone groove, stranding you in a kind of I-can't-get-out-of-my-own-head reverie that leaves you nailed to the couch -- er, rather, in the theater seat.

These kind of contrasts and comparisons are very much on the minds of Carl Savering and Angela Wilson, the co-founders of Theatre Quorum, a tiny but so far very smart and selective Dallas stage entity. Their current production is Jeffrey Hatcher's adaptation of Henry James' ghost novella The Turn of the Screw, which was last year staged to great critical acclaim at Fort Worth's Circle Theatre. Hatcher has lifted whole passages from James' Pontiac-size paragraphs (his prose either ponders or is ponderous, depending on your tastes) that detail the sights of a governess (Laurel Whitsett) as she watches her two young charges (both played by Kent Rice-Williams) become possessed -- maybe -- by the ghosts of dead lovers. If well honed, that dreamy self-dialogue is theater's biggest selling point. It would be fatal for Hollywood or even most indie flicks. That's especially true now, in a universe where Twister and Speed director Jan De Bont presides over the upcoming computer-effects-decked movie version of Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, a beautiful, cerebral ghost story that's been adapted for the stage by Dallas playwright Michael Wehrli. You have to wonder whether fans of one medium or the other can adjust to the different expectations -- not inside themselves, but coming from the media of stage and film on their respective audiences. Both make certain requests on the ticket-buyer. Actually, it might be more accurate to call them "demands" in the case of the stage.

"In The Turn of the Screw," says director Carl Savering, "you see the actors' reaction to things, but you don't see those things happen. The point of the play is to put the ambiguity in James' book to its best advantage, that you don't know whether these things are really happening or are happening in the minds of the characters. The show is written to be incredibly spare. It's two performers, light effects, and one chair. Now, if you went to a movie and saw plywood boards and two actors reacting to nothing, you'd be pissed. No matter how hard we try as theater artists, the audience knows what they're watching is fake. But Hatcher said, 'I don't want this to be about seeing ghosts; I want it to be about what's happening in the governess' mind.'"

Savering perfectly phrases the barrier many unaccustomed ticket-buyers hit when they go see a play -- the audience knows what they're watching is fake. If The Turn of the Screw were filmed today (it's already had a lovely, serene, eerie movie rendition starring Deborah Kerr and scripted by Truman Capote as The Innocents), it would star Julia Roberts fronting a hundred-million-dollar spectacle that would scrub away every possible doubt that what you were seeing were ghosts -- because that's what you paid to see. That's what you expected. The irony, of course, is that cinematic computer effects are highly advanced fakery, and that you can't get any more real than two live actors in a room spouting dialogue. But you could spend your lifetime in a Buddhist monastery bouncing that one around in your shaved cranium.

But ironic or not, that "fakeness" -- and this is the hardest part to explain to theater neophytes, to newcomers who fidget in their seats wondering what all the fuss is about while their butts ache during the second act -- is good theater's biggest strength. Film tends to take you away from yourself; theater usually reminds you who you are and where you are, whether by comparison or contrast. The trick of turning the live stage into escapism the way you would movies is to accept and eventually embrace that fakeness and just listen and watch for smaller moments that can turn into gigantic revelations, if the actors are doing their jobs. Forget about the externals, the justifications, the artifice.

Angela Wilson -- a produced Dallas playwright whose script God Goliath got a reading at Kitchen Dog's New Play Festival and whose Heart will receive a full production at Theatre Quorum -- admits there is some sacrifice by the viewer to the experience of theater.

"When I go to theater, I sometimes have to leave my personal taste behind and focus on the value of the art," Wilson says. "If you're going for a movie or a TV show, you go and see what you want. It's often the same for community theater. I've taken my daughter to theater, and it's a sort of training for her to see things that are subversive that she's not going to like, but that she's going to appreciate later. It's the same with audiences; it's frustrating to try to train an audience at the same time you grow one. You want to sell tickets, but you don't want to make fodder for the masses. I wish we could do Harvey, for instance [the play about the childlike man whose best friend is a tall white rabbit]. But I'd do it differently. Let's face it, the lead guy's a drunk. But when you talk about that, you're messing with an American icon.

"With The Turn of the Screw, we wanted to just tell a raw story," she notes. "Our bare stage is the equivalent of the writer's blank page. But many audiences don't want to put that kind of investment of attention, of concentration in it."

Is the obsolescence of theater inevitable in the age of live CNN video coverage of crimes, of information and entertainment that shoot from one end of the world to the other in seconds? Of course, critics have been mourning the death of the stage, the novel, and visual art for so long, all the funeral guests have left the wake. And with multimillion-dollar musicals and movie-stage tie-ins touring the country to packed houses, one could argue that some theater artists are smartly waking up to the times and adapting in the way painters and novelists aren't. When I speak of an approaching expiration date for theater, I'm talking about theater in that Dionysian sense -- that sweaty, naughty, bourbon breath-in-your-face exchange when nothing separates me from my actors. No frills, just people.

I'm no child of the the-a-tuh myself. I did read plays as a kid, and acted in high school productions, but the defining pop cultural moment of my childhood was (you guessed it) Star Wars. My movie tastes went off into arcane alleys where I'd hang out in the darkness of my imagination and smoke a cigarette with favorite actors or directors from my personal cult, but the ecstasy of watching George Lucas' epic was irreplaceable.

Or so I thought. Worn down by the constant nagging of the hype monster, I relented and saw Star Wars I: The Phantom Menance. Actually, I was truly excited, and when that John Williams score started, the chills racing down my spine left freezer-burn on the megaplex seat. But about halfway into the film, my involvement with the wondrous special effects deteriorated into detached admiration and, finally, a little annoyance. I had problems paying attention. And it repeated to me a realization I'd had about a year ago: Because I see a couple of plays a week now, and have trained myself to scavenge for delicious scraps of food in that spare stage ecosystem, I can eat only so much fast food delivered to me on banquet-sized trays. There's no thrill of the hunt; the faster a movie editor cuts away from an actor's face, the more my attention wanders, because I'm used to searching a live face for response. When my butt started to hurt in The Phantom Menace, I knew again that theater had seduced me.

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