Experiencing Time Live
How we engage with onstage v. on-screen performances
Having recently written my sci-fi novel, Ephemeral, which focuses on accelerated aging, I’ve lately felt intrigued by how we interact with time when we experience a live v. recorded performance.
For context, I recently helped coach a homeschooled students’ production of Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. (The troupe did a fantastic job and has an amazingly-efficient theater schedule.1) Additionally, I attended the Broadway musical, Anastasia, with a couple girlfriends as it was touring in my city.
Basically, I’ve seen more theatrical performances in one week than I have in one decade — and that’s coming from a card-carrying Thespian2 who grew up in a household where several members regularly performed onstage. (My mother still breaks into song at the drop of a cue word or phrase — a habit which I may have also adopted.)
Although I appreciate the theater and enjoy performing, these days I typically view my entertainment via screen rather than stage. It’s certainly much simpler. I don’t have to plan a special evening, rush to the theater, or even put on makeup. I can simply relax on the couch and enjoy the entertaining glow. Nothing is required of me. I am merely a spectator.
But as I attended all the performances last week, the distinction between onstage and onscreen entertainment struck me afresh. Namely, that movies are polished products frozen in time while theater is a social event involving shared experience.
When actors and audience gather together in the same space, they share the same moment in time. There’s a mutual power of influence exerted by one over the other. Just as the actors affect the audience’s responses, the audience’s responses affect the actors’ performance.
There’s nothing worse than a dead house where no one laughs or gasps or claps. But a lively audience has the power to energize the actors which, in turn, elevates their performance.
Each new show brings a brand new audience and a new host of idiosyncratic factors which can influence the production as a whole. Did the hero get good sleep last night? Did the stage manager forget to eat lunch? Did the leading lady just break up with her boyfriend? Is the audience tired? Excited? Heckling? All these details influence a performance and can never be duplicated exactly from one show to the next.
This is why you can never see the same play twice. Once the shared moment is over, it’s gone — never to be repeated.
I’m not sure why, but I find sharing a present moment with friends and strangers subtly comforting.
Perhaps the older I get, the more I realize how fleeting my own time is.
This truth hits me harder when I rewatch a movie (particularly around Christmas time). Every time I do, I realize the actors onscreen have not changed, but I have. When I watch Charlotte’s Web as an adult, I perceive it so much differently than I did as a child, although nothing in the film itself has changed. (For instance, I don’t remember crying at the end when I was ten …)
Even though I love where I am in life, there are certain movies which evoke memories of my past and remind me I cannot go back. Nor can I enjoy these movies again with those who have already passed on. A recorded performance is locked in time. While I can view it over and over through the years, I cannot again be the exact person I was when I first watched, nor can I share the moment when the actors first performed — it was over before I started the previews.
It’s like these movies have turned into oil paintings — ever vibrant, ever constant. But every time I enter the gallery, I come with different eyes. And clothes. And even tastes in art.
Now, I’m not saying watching a live theatrical performance is superior to all other forms of entertainment. Nor am I saying I hate watching old movies; I actually adore them — especially when I can share them with new people in real time and participate in a communal processing experience. (As an aside, this is probably why the pandemic didn’t kill off movie theaters.)
But in live theater, my processing from the audience can actually influence the performance whereas no matter how much I groan, nothing keeps Mrs. Bennet from making a fool of herself at Mr. Bingleys’ ball.
While I don’t anticipate spending quite so much time at the theater in the near future, I think I could grow in appreciating my current moments better. So often I get smitten by my plans for the future that I fail to recognize what a gift the present is.
(See what I did there?)
If I spend all my limited time yearning for the next weekend, the next project, or the next life stage, I am short-changing myself.
(I did it again! This is what happens when you write late at night.)
So in conclusion, I am thankful for the theater’s reminder to enjoy life’s moments — whether I’m watching a play or playing in the theater of life. For as William Shakespeare said,
“All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players; they have their exits and their entrances, and one man in his time plays many parts.” ~ As You Like It
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A word of praise for how this camp works! Instead of having all the actors show up for multiple hours each day for weeks and weeks to learn the play, all participants memorize their parts before coming to camp. There are four pre-rehearsals intended to help the leads, but otherwise, the show is put together in one week (five 3hr rehearsals). This ingenious theatrical method saves SOOOO much time! A round of applause for Mrs. McPherson and Mrs. Tisdale for their innovation and efficiency!
Thespian: a person who sells their soul to drama club in high school.