It’s been a theatrical week in my family. Last Friday, my son played the part of Don Pedro in his school production of Shakespeare’s “Much Ado about Nothing,” and two days later my daughter played a shepherd in an intricate Christmas musical at our church. Both roles required them to invest a great deal of time and concentration.
To breathe life into stage directions and printed words is no small task. On the surface, the two productions I watched couldn’t have been more different. The Shakespeare play was staged very minimally, letting nothing more than the Bard’s timeless words and the actors’ inflections and body language do the work. The church play on the other hand (an original work called “A Christmas Journey”) involved props, intricate lighting and stage sets, an orchestra, a choir and even ballet to draw the viewers into a story.
In both cases however, the greatest challenge was to have the performances be natural enough to draw in the viewers and remove them enough from their daily concerns to let them recognize the deeper messages the plays convey.
“You find yourself thinking of a Christmas in the past, and time just falls away somehow,” said one of the characters in the church production. Getting the pressure of modern life to fall away is the critical element for live theater to work, and it is indeed a difficult undertaking. The difficulty in all art is, in a sense, to make the efforts of the painter, playwright, actor, director or musician invisible so that what the audience experiences seems as natural and necessary as sunlight.
At one point in a rehearsal at the church, the director and the musical director debated how to make the emotional impact of a particular scene more effective and at which exact point in the music that impact should hit.
“There needs to be a little more emotional ‘umph’ there at the end,” the musical director said and called up to one of the technicians in the balcony to modify the lighting for the scene in a certain way. Nothing in the production would happen by accident; everything was carefully planned.
But for it to work right, all this planning would have to be invisible. Trite as it may sound, any sort of technical glitch or flubbed line can shatter the fragile illusion through which we, in the audience, are paradoxically being made to perceive something that is quite real.
In 1817, English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (author of the “Rime of the Ancient Mariner”) analyzed the challenge that artists face in helping their audience transcend the particulars of any moment and getting them to connect with the art before them. He wrote that the trick was to combine in just the right combination “human interest and a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith.”
This is the key for a theatrical production perhaps more than any other art form. The audience has to forget that what it’s witnessing is artificial. It has to be willing to suspend its predilection for disbelief.
Once art helps us to do that, it can then sweep us away. Whenever we encounter it, art stands at our side and quietly insists that there’s more to our world than we can behold in the drab materialism in which we live our workaday lives.
We have to have faith that what is being presented before us is actually true in a mysterious, but substantive sense.