Great expectations

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?

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.'"

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Jimmy Fowler