I thought of all the fun I've been having at the San Francisco Olympians Festival recently--selling tickets, raffling off prizes, inviting the actors and audience members to drink with us at the White Horse Pub following every show--and said "Well, unlike with movies, you can go out drinking with the actors afterwards!"
This may sound glib (I was trying to be witty), but I do think it gets at a deeper truth. The same truths identified by playwright Lauren Gunderson in her "Wherefore Theater?" essay, which got published recently on the Huffington Post and has been linked to by several of my Facebook friends. Gunderson identifies four main things that distinguish theater from other art forms:
- The Here-and-Now: "Going to theater isn't just watching a story, it's being in it. By sitting in a theater with live actors you become part of the drama and/or comedy. You are in the moment with real, live humans."
- Theatricality: "Theater has very simple (no CG required) tools to blow your mind. Basically, if we say that a character is a ghost, they are. [...] Theatricality works just on the basis of shared imagination."
- It All Starts Here: "When theater works it's a combination of the very basic human instinct to embody a story, and the best of visual, musical, literary and performing arts."
- Accessibility: "Theater is just plain easy to be a part of. It wants you to participate, to show up, to try it yourself, to engage, to applaud."
With theater, you do have to find a company to produce your script, or self-produce it, but at least in larger cities, there are many companies seeking new work and new voices. And, even if it's produced in a 50-seat black box theater, I can guarantee that the audience will not be "friends only," and that you will be able to gauge their reaction and know exactly what they thought of it.
Now, if the barriers to entry for theater are lower than for other art forms, perhaps that means that there is more crappy theater out there than crappy novels or films. (I don't really believe this--have you seen what is playing at the local multiplex lately?--but hear me out.) And maybe that is why audiences are sometimes wary of going to see new plays in small theaters; they've been burned before and don't want that to happen again. But the good thing about theater having low barriers to entry is that it enables artists to hone their craft in front of an audience, and to learn from their mistakes. We can chide the American theater for getting caught up in the pursuit of "new voices" and "new writers," perhaps at the expense of ignoring mid-career and established playwrights. But isn't that better than Hollywood, which seems to be looking for directors and writers who can copy established formulae, rather than for fresh new cinematic voices?
One more point I would make about theater is that it aims to be thought-provoking and encourage conversation. The best novels and films do this too, of course, but it is made more difficult because they are not such live, visceral media. What happens when you read a great novel, or watch a DVD of a great film, but then have no one to discuss it with? You miss out on a key part of the experience, is what happens. Because theater requires an audience, it's got a built-in group of people who can discuss the work of art when it is over. And because of that, theater is ideally suited for asking the hard questions, for leaving things unresolved, for stimulating not just an emotional response, but a thoughtful reflection as well.