Saturday, November 22, 2008

The Miraculous Medium

When the cinema was young, it was, with the peephole and the x-ray, part of a group of new mechanical attractions marvelous simply as technological feats. So at first, it was of little moment what was depicted onscreen, the remarkable thing was really its essential trick: to make a picture move. Any picture would do—the Lumières’ children playing on the lawn, a man on a bicycle, a train pulling into a station. It was the medium itself that was the star, and the material it used was only good inasmuch as it highlighted the possibilities of the medium.

Eventually the novelty wore off, and the enterprising projectionist looked to narrative to capture and hold an audience’s attention. He began by sequencing his random clips in such a way as to tell a vague kind of story, supplying himself a spoken narration. Finally he began looking for complete stories told on film. Because they were constructing narratives by means of actors portraying roles, the cinema found a guide in the theater. This older brother had two millennia worth of material to use and a bevy of willing talents and techniques that quickly were devoured by film.

Film was economical. With a projector, a screen, and a train ticket, a single film could generate profits for years. Movie tickets were then, as now, cheaper than theater and a film could be shown a dozen times a day without the actors keeling over from exhaustion. Furthermore, the cinema was quick to discover its unique abilities—the cross cut, the close-up, temporal (over spatial) continuity—and it became not a mere mechanical attraction, no more a simple sleight of hand, but an art.

As an art it began to distance itself from the theater. The critic André Bazin, for example, argued carefully for preserving the distinction of the two, even and especially when used in conjunction. German Expressionism of the 1920s to this day remains criticized primarily for its theatricality—its use of unnatural sets and makeup. As the cinema rose to the foreground of culture and imagination, the theater lost its seat as the popular art and retreated to itself, to its private harem of enthusiasts and educators.

But today the next phase is beginning, and it is a bone-achingly exciting time because the ground under the theater is shaking. You’ll laugh, but on the buses and subway trains of Chicago there’s an ad for the new stage musical at the Cadillac Palace theater—an adaptation from the film Dirty Dancing. The ads read: The Classic Story Onstage. Onstage. The ad campaign consists of an assertion of a miraculous medium. The theater has become an attraction for its own sake.

What does that mean for us in the theater, we who are so proud of our content? How could it be good news? It will be good news if we can succeed in identifying the attraction, capitalize on it, and then maintain the new audiences it brings as we head into the next inevitable step. Well, what does compose the theatrical attraction? Considering that Dirty Dancing is a musical perhaps it offers song, dance, and a certain kind of spectacle. It would be easy to think that what the theater needs to survive, then, is to dedicate itself solely to musical productions. This isn’t quite right, because the film of Dirty Dancing has music and dance—of a different sort surely, but it’s difficult to believe that the entire reason someone would be willing to pay $40 for a show they could rent for $4 is just to finally hear Baby sing. What the theater offers is the living encounter. And since it really is this simple, inherent aspect of the theater that promises to save it, then it truly can be saved.

The cinema’s inherent attraction was technological and so, like all technologies, this attraction faded. Indeed cinema has become so pervasive in our culture that its miracle is entirely invisible and the medium exists only for its content and its position as a cultural commonplace. The attraction of the theater, however, is not technological and can be experienced afresh at every performance. At any performance the actor could stare you in the eyes and call you out by name, or you in the audience could rise out of your seat and embrace the crying orphan onstage. It is only a communal will to complete a story that keeps these things from happening.

Rather than scoff and gag at the money being spent on the ‘theatricalizations’ of cinema which have so suddenly flooded the marketplace, we need to convert this event attendance into habitual attendance, focus the theatrical experience on the encounter, and scale back inessential features that drive up ticket prices and distract from this essential attraction. Overdressed theater is like a film of a still photograph—it misses the whole point.

This isn’t to say we have nothing to learn from the cinema. We need to try new methods to advertise theater to new audiences. Filmed clips of plays online will never work. Never. We should try ‘trailers,’ bits and scenes performed live at other shows around town. We should emphasize ‘local’ before that grows stale (if its not too late). But most of all we should never think of audiences as nuisances, rabble, or masters, but as partners. I don’t think we need to fear that theater will disappear completely, but if we don’t capitalize on this fresh moment and the attraction evidenced by these new adaptations, the theater will continue to slink unnoticed in the purgatory of ‘high art’ with jazz and contemporary painting as its lonely neighbors. The theater can decide today to be vital: let’s.

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