In what was a very delayed blow of the obvious, I realized the other night that I’m not well disposed towards theater as a performed variety of artistic production. Oh sure, I love reading a good play, and I’ve seen the rare stellar one performed over the years– but unless done with improbable skill, staged drama and comedy tend to do nothing for me; for some reason, it’s always apparent that something unnatural is going on in the way these people are acting, and were they walking around in real life as they are on the stage, they’d come across as stilted and/or unable to be themselves. In other words, the very “grammar” of much theatrical delivery feels obviously performed, affected; I’m rarely transported into that realm were disbelief is suspended.*
It should have come as no surprise to me, then, that I’d walk away unmoved from a read-through I went to the other night– where a cast of five delivered their lines while looking at pages on music stands, and made no pretense about this being a full-fledged theatrical presentation. And surprise it really wasn’t– but what I did find myself wondering on the train home was why these things leave me uninspired when I can walk away in raptures from readings of poetry, or of passages from a novel or essay– and why I love reading texts aloud with others or having them read to me, whatever the genre, even if we trip all over ourselves while making the effort.
I was also puzzled about why I’m often more than happy to tune into a radio play, but not enthused by the very same text being read in front of me by actors in the same room. At first I thought the lack of visual distraction– a reader’s gesture or facial expression– might be key. But then I also remembered that audio books, sometimes even when recorded by their authors, make me want to run screaming in the opposite direction, hands held firmly over my finicky ears.
In some ways, none of this makes any sense. What is it about certain modes of delivery that makes simple enjoyment of the sounds of words, or of the presentation of an idea or situation, not enough? Where reading out loud with a group of people is concerned, could part of the draw be that we’re not making any attempt to place an audience, or even ourselves, in a believable alternate universe? Part of that pretense is still there when a cast reads from their pages to an audience. But I’m also beginning to wonder if this disconnect has something to do with intimacy, at least when things are presented live.**
When friends, or even strangers, read aloud in a group, there’s already a certain relationship that exists between these people exposing themselves to each other, taking a bit of a risk, albeit minor, that they’ll sound foolish or less than masterful or ignorant of correct pronunciations. With readings given in front of an audience, the cast still experiences that risk, but the audience has nothing to fear for itself; the cast rarely sees or is present with them in any meaningful way. With a single author or poet, the vulnerability of a cast member is doubled; this is not only a presentation you’re giving; it’s your very work, even you, in a sense, being put on display– and so the relationship and trust asked in a certain way from the audience may differ from what’s required of a troupe passing someone else’s words through their mouths. At the end of the day, that troupe isn’t fundamentally responsible, or totally, at least, if spectators walk away dissatisfied.
That’s the best I can come up with at the moment; maybe there’s really nothing to come up with after all, and it just boils down to an inexplicable taste for one thing over another. Any thoughts? Having given up, for now, at least, on this conundrum, I’ll go immerse myself in the intimate exchange between reader and unadorned word.
* Maybe one of the reasons I can do opera is that at its foundations, it doesn’t really aim for verisimilitude; after all, I can’t think of anyone who goes through life communicating primarily through song, and usually very difficult song at that.
** Remember, I dig radio plays– but I don’t think intimacy can really be established with a bunch of disconnected voices, at least not in the same way it can be with live, present human beings.