The Play’s the Thing

Unknown photographer; from the Leo Baeck Institute via Wikimedia Commons

Unknown photographer; from the Leo Baeck Institute via Wikimedia Commons

I ain’t gonna lie, people: it’s been a tough and sometimes scary week, and I almost wanted to bow out of a gathering of a play-reading group I just joined, a nice, unassuming bunch who just want to get together and read things out loud. I’ve been looking for just such a thing for years now, and yet there I was, feeling so beaten down it seemed I was incapable of doing more that crawling into a corner and going into prolonged hibernation.

I forged ahead, though, and showed up to take part in reciting Red, John Logan’s drama about Mark Rothko. There are only two characters in this piece, so the readers switched out each scene, a compromise that was actually a perfect arrangement. With what ended up being one big, famous painter with a tendency to (in the play, at least) wax philosophic while yelling at his assistant, the latter of whom wouldn’t take his verbal volleys lying down, it was nice to be able to step in and out of bouts of spoken intensity.

But what absolute therapy– getting to hurl insults and express indignation left and right, without hurting anyone’s feelings or having massive repercussions come crashing down around your head! The act of reading the written word out loud, although not entirely different from sitting alone and quietly imbibing statements and dialogue, does change the experience of interacting with said word. In one sense, that’s obvious; perceptible sound has now been brought into the interpretive mix; the aural atmosphere has changed. But when lines get voiced, and are spoken between readers of the same text, suddenly, what it means to be engaged in a participatory experience is widened, less predictable, more exciting, more interesting. As a bunch of good-natured amateurs play off of each other, feed off of and add to each other’s energy, the same words digested in the lone comfort of a single, quiet reader’s head almost become, in this new situation, animate, independent beings involved in a conversation that somehow transpires between, and yet beyond, the speakers and even the words that have been chosen for them.

I’m not making a great deal of sense, and may seem to be caught up in romantic rapture. But I’ll go with it, at least for the moment– partially because I don’t really dig being part of a theater’s audience, and so my sudden enthusiasm for drama is a bit puzzling. Unless all aspects of the production are considered elite-level– and even then–, the stage frequently just doesn’t do it for me, and I’m bored in the presence of what so often seems a stilted situation, from written dialogue to live performance. And I’m guessing, were I to go back and read Red on my own, I’d walk away feeling skeptical about whether anyone ever behaved this way in real life, even an historical figure known to have had an outsize personality. But with a bunch of people in the back of a coffee shop, stumbling over lines and laughing at our own flubs? Beautiful. Satisfying. Fun and restorative.

Maybe that’s what the theater is supposed to be, and what’s missing for me in perfected productions: a sense of being an actual part of a living– not endlessly rehearsed, or smooth, or simply observed– conversation. Not just suspending disbelief, but really participating, to the degree that your absence, or that of any of the other readers, would feel like a loss. It’s only speculation, but I’ll try to keep the considerations in mind the next time the group meets– and hopefully provides just as much healing as it did the other night.

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