At a panel discussion at The Grand Theatre on Thursday, playwright Trina Davies said that the distinctive difference between theatre and film is that the experience of a live performance is co-created with the audience. At the movies, the actors don’t know you are there. There is no relationship whatsoever. In theatre, the experience is produced together. A production without an audience does not ‘produce’ an analogue experience to what happens in an auditorium full of humans.
Davies described the difficulty of writing Shatter, a play set in the aftermath of the Halifax explosion of 1917 — the largest human-produced explosion before Hiroshima that killed 2,000 people. How can you reproduce the sense of a blast of this magnitude on a stage? You can’t do it physically. It defies even the biggest special effects budget (unless, I suppose, you have an extra half-mile radius of city blocks to incinerate at each show). The ‘experience’ of what the explosion looked, felt, and sounded like could only be recreated through the words and actions of her characters. The audience could only ‘feel’ the size and devastation of the disaster in their minds, not their eyes.
With CGI, of course, you could visualize a 2.9 kiloton explosion convincingly. (But it’s only one vision, and it probably belongs to the executive producer.) The profundity of live theatre lies in this act of joint imaginative production — a kind of collective make-believe. We’re not convinced of the explosion by the clever arrangement of pixels on a screen — or because we somehow forgot about the curtains — but because we empathize with characters in a narrative. This participatory group empathy session yields something that is more ‘real’ than even the most convincing special effects on a one-dimensional screen. This is why live theatre can never be supplanted by Netflix.
Dennis Garnhum — who I recently interviewed about the connection between theatre and civics — was also on the panel. He observed that producer Cameron Mackintosh’s visions for plays like Cats (1981) and Les Misérables (1985) mark the beginning of a trend towards evermore elaborate staging expectations. But with the demand for greater effects comes the demand for bigger budgets, which subsequently drives the cost of experiencing theatre into a distinctive and exclusive socioeconomic class of its own. (One of Garnhum’s initiatives is recalibrating the cost and accessibility of live theatre for high school students.)
Listening to the panel, a few things ‘clicked’ for me. I have always loved the ‘flesh and blood’ dimension of theatre. In an entertainment landscape dominated by prefabricated, play-on-demand experience, a live stage is a place of attention tuning: at this time, in this place, we will ‘story’ with one another. Here the actor is a human, without digital enhancement. What I wasn’t able to articulate before was the co-creative dimension of the experience. In a way, going to the theatre is like reading a book: the explosion is only ‘real’ to the extent it exists in the imagination of the reader. But in the imagination, the explosion goes far beyond the mere words on the page. So too in theatre: the experience of the explosion goes far beyond the raw mechanics of the set design, costumes, and script. I am beginning to think of live theatre as a kind of ‘mass reading’ of a text — it is like having a book read to you along with an auditorium full of people imagining and feeling the scene together.
Eventually, we might get tired of watching pretend explosions on three-story screens. We might discover that being in the same physical room as imperfect, dynamic, adaptive storytellers makes for a richer experience than watching the carbon copy reruns of the ‘perfect takes’ spliced together.
Imagining the explosion is more impactful than seeing it.