Going to a play is a risk. When it works, live theater is a satisfyingly complex experience. Thoughts are provoked. Laughter is induced. Language activates and a sense of wonder and humanity infiltrate our lives. Some enjoy the make-believe qualities of an imaginatively designed set and bold costumes. The flourishes pulled off in the dark during those seconds between scenes. There is a craft involved here, and the craft is both visible and invisible, unlike on a screen. Dozens of people creating something dynamic. But when it's bad... it's really bad. Suffocating. "Where are the aisles?" suffocating. You start wondering about how much time is left. About the script itself. Melodramatic and campy lines that are not meant as camp or melodrama. This kind of stuff eats at you. What starts as stimulatingly uncertain becomes impossibly illogical and nonsensical. Whimsy when it works. Chaos when it doesn’t.
A 90-minute play without intermission. Interminable a fitting word. I felt worse because I had suggested the play. As if I should have been proud had it been a magical experience. You take a chance. You see what happens. This is the nature of going to a small theater. A local Bay Area theater, not one of the nationally known companies like A.C.T., but a smaller, riskier venue. We hadn't been in over a year, maybe two. I received the emails every few months, and I remembered the "good theater" experiences. The play was about one man's descent into madness. There were demonic clowns, who entered and exited several times. There was a purposefully confusing order of events, with vague explanations of time highlighted in phrases behind the actors on a wall. There were fetal positions. There were incomprehensibly jarring noises, meant to disrupt the audience, resembling the manic thoughts inside a schizophrenic's head. The three of us considered leaving, but it seemed there was no way out.
To our right, several older people, in their 70s. To our left, a bevy of sedate-looking octogenarians. Before the play had started, I'd recognized we may be the youngest people in the audience. The stage manager had informed us that there would be a question and answer session after the play with the director. This was the second-to-last preview show. As if to keep us from exiting, the stage manager had planted himself in one of the escape paths, on the steps.
I began to think about the actors themselves. It was easy to want to escape. And, really, wasn't that the play’s purpose? What person in a state of manic episodes is comfortable? When thoughts become uncontrollable, our impulses overwhelm us. There is value in experiencing that helplessness. I thought about the actors and their aspirations. These are not Hollywood A-list types. These are not people who can rely on their artistic careers for income. I considered one of the women, who looked like she might be independently wealthy. As if she had grown up on a Marin county estate. Who knows? She might’ve been eating soup every day in an overcrowded apartment with too many family members. Clearly, I’m projecting here. Maybe it was because she was smiling so much. Her character just kept beaming, as if she were on ecstasy. I’m guessing it was meant to stand in contrast to her nearly catatonic husband, who activated only in the manic episodes. These were people who were attempting to express something human, even if my judgments of the dialogue and the melodramatic delivery continued to cloud the experience. They were somebody’s grown-up children. They were trying.
Mercifully, the play ended. The lights went up, and we hopped over the older couples, making our way back into our lives. We had something to digest, to roll over, and to make sense of. We talked about the play for another hour or two. I thought, "In that way, it was a success." Worse to see a play and have exactly nothing to say afterward. Many movies can feel that way. Predictable. Formulaic. Appealing to the lowest common denominator.
In retrospect, I’m glad we went. What is life without unpredictable excursions in the name of art? Watching and then deleting another 30-minute television show from the DVR doesn't often feel like an experience. It’s like cleaning the dishes. Press "delete." More stuff will fill up. More stuff will be watched. More stuff will be deleted. We live in this age of entertainment consumption. The disposable nature that comes with the remote control. Fast forward through the commercials. My intolerance is furthered by the mute button. Fast forward in order to fit the fourth quarter of the game. I wonder if I'm fully absorbed in any of it anymore. The bad dialogue overwhelms me. I have the urge to retreat back into my own version of the fetal position. The remote. The keyboard. The phone.
The reality of my life becoming very adult with big steps on the horizon, when I look at it from my anxious self. The other reality, if I choose to see it, is that I’ve already taken on that thing, become that “adult” and now the rest will follow. It is as unpredictable as the theater experience, and life will always present some bad dialogue and melodramatic acting… and yes, the exit rows will always be blocked. But doors will also open. The crisp night air will always refresh, and there will always be something to talk and laugh about.
—Find Jonah Hall at www.darkoindex.com and on on Twitter: @darkoindex.