I Am Flame and I Am Fire

I just saw an interview with Broadway actor Aaron Tveit (pronounced t'vate) about his new TV show.

The interviewer asked him about the differences between stage and screen, whether he was more fulfilled by one than by the other. His answer was that performing onstage gives an actor something he cannot get anywhere else – the energy and instant feedback of a live audience.

Theatre artists talk about energy a lot. I can only assume it sounds kind of vague, kind of abstract, kind of New Agey, to most "civilians." So what does it mean?

Well, I'll start by saying you can't really understand what it is unless you experience it. It's really unlike any other human experience. But I'll try to explain it anyway.

Humans have evolved to have specialized sensitivity to other humans. We learn from birth to "read" people. We recognize emotion in facial expressions, we sense tension or distress, we feel connection or hostility, we notice the tiniest changes in facial features, posture, body language. And we do it all without realizing consciously we're doing it. Because of all that, acting on film and in small theatres can be really subtle. I often tell our actors that they don't have to show us that the character is sad; they just have to feel sad, and we'll read it on their faces. Not only is the audience naturally good at that, but that's literally why they're here – that's a huge part of being in the audience. And the actors can feel that engagement from across the footlights.

(A fun side note... I've noticed that some people do in real life what bad actors do onstage, "showing" us with their facial expressions what they think or feel – or what they want us to believe they think or feel –  literally performing those facial expressions in normal conversation. I've found that some people who've had abusive or otherwise fucked up childhoods almost always have their eyebrows raised, probably because that feels innocent or nonthreatening. But just as it is onstage, most of us recognize that kind of performance in the real world as phony, even if only on a gut level. Even though what they're saying may be sincere, we still register the phoniness of the performance.)

That said, an audience is even more actively engaged when it's theatre of imagination, when the show is asking the audience to fill in location, detail, walls – like Shakespeare did at the Globe, and like New Line does with most of our shows. Because of the kind of work we do, Many of our shows were written that way. And you can actually see that more active engagement in people's physicality. Often in our more intense shows, I notice a lot of the audience physically leaning forward in their seats. They are engaged. And the actors can feel that.

The result is that the collaboration among writers, director, actors, musicians, and designers expands to also include the audience. The audience participates in the storytelling. There's an old theatre cliche, that "without an audience, it's just rehearsal." But it's true. Art is communication, and you can't communicate with yourself. Theatre isn't theatre without an audience. To paraphrase Mr. Shorofsky in Fame, that's not theatre, that's masturbation. A show doesn't exist on the page – that's just its blueprint – and it doesn't exist without an audience. Theatre is live actors (and musicians) telling a story to a live audience. Or maybe that should be "telling a story with a live audience."

Director-producer Gregory Mosher says, "I have great faith in audiences. We only create problems when we treat them as customers instead of collaborators in an artistic process. . . We can let audiences down in all kinds of ways: by being dishonest with them, by betraying our own intentions and, therefore, betraying the audience's trust. All they ask the artists to do is what the artists want to do. Audiences say, 'I want to see what you want to show me.' "

Even beyond all this, there's a concrete, physical part, particularly in a small theatre like ours. Actors expend an incredible amount of energy – and therefore, heat – when they're onstage, far more than you'd think. That's why so many of them sweat so badly. Even standing still takes energy onstage – it's not the same as standing still in real life. Even when a character is at ease, the actor is holding themselves, controlling every muscle of their body. (Which is why I recommend that all actors take dance classes.) Actors can literally feel the heat coming off of each other, they can smell the sweat, they can feel the muscle tension when they touch.

And in a small theatre, the audience connects into that almost as powerfully as the actors do. And the actors can feel that. Every once in a while, we get a disconnected audience, and it really throws the actors, because one of their scene partners isn't holding up their end.

This is Reason #235 why live theatre will never die. Despite cable and Netflix and Hulu and iPads – or maybe because of all that – audiences will always crave the connection that comes only from live performance.

And while I'm on the subject, also live musicians...!

Live theatre isn't live theatre if all elements of it are not live. Companies that use recorded "tracks" instead of a live band are robbing the audience of part of that amazing energy that defines live theatre, that makes live theatre better than a movie or a CD. All that interaction I describe above also happens between the actors and musicians, and between the band and the audience. I recently declared (half-joking, but only half) that a theatre company producing a musical with recorded music is like selling tickets to Hamlet and then when the audience arrives, you roll in a TV and play them a video of Hamlet. It's sort of the same thing, but it's not what they paid for...

New Line has never and will never produce a show with recorded music. That's a line we won't cross.

And since I'm on a roll here... I also have no patience for giant video walls behind live performances. I hate that the Muny has installed one. Do they think audiences are no longer capable of imagining time and place? We are. Do they want their audiences entirely passive? Theatre should be live, not mostly live. I love all things high-tech, but not my theatre, not the one thing that is literally defined by its humanity. A video wall is a tool we don't need to tell our stories.

And the truth is, as much as the Muny holds a special place in my heart, I'll grant you that much of what makes live theatre wonderful gets lost in the 4,500-seat Fox or the 11,000-seat Muny, unless you're really close. No disrespect intended, but if you need binoculars, you're not connecting with the actors in any meaningful way. We accept this, because we can only see most big shows and Broadway tours in gigantic houses. But it's not the way theatre was meant to be. Shakespeare's Globe Theatre sat only about 1,500. New Line's current space seats 210, with only seven rows. Which we love.

The tours have to play those huge houses because theatre (particularly musical theatre) is really expensive to produce, because there is no economy of scale. There is no mass production. (Although Cameron Mackintosh has tried his best.) It is entirely, gloriously, fundamentally, and often irritatingly human and unreproducible. It is about the liveness of human existence. It cannot be mass-produced or mechanized without losing its soul.

Designer Robert Edmond Jones wrote in his brilliant book, The Dramatic Imagination, "The only theatre worth saving, the only theatre worth having, is a theatre motion pictures cannot touch. When we succeed in eliminating from it every trace of the photographic attitude of mind, when we succeed in making a production that is the exact antithesis of a motion picture, a production that is everything a motion picture is not and nothing a motion picture is, the old lost magic will return once more. The realistic theatre, we may remember, is less than a hundred years old. But the theatre – great theatre, world theatre – is far older than that, so many centuries older that by comparison it makes our little candid-camera theatre seem like something that was thought up only the day before yesterday."

Amen, brother. Let's keep it live.

Long Live the Musical!


rlphsil | July 27, 2013 at 6:16 PM

You sing sweet sweet music to my ears Scot. Keeping it lively and alive. Thanks for this.

Cara | July 27, 2013 at 7:35 PM

You hit the nail on the head. :) I am sharing this with my fb fan page. Thanks for writing such amazing stuff.

Rachelle | August 19, 2013 at 10:08 PM