I attended the theater last night, as the guest of a friend. That last sentence, in its impressive economy of words, should tell you several things. First, that I am fancy and rich because I see plays. Second, I also have a tremendous depth of character and intellectual weight because I didn't just "go" "see" a "play." I attended the theater. Any idiot can go to a play and clappity-clap like trained seals while Rosie O'Donnell jumps around in her Seussical hat. It's easy. You just sit in your big, dumb chair with your dribble cup and sit still for a bunch of hours, with your fingers and mouth covered in melted chocolate. But try ATTENDING THE THEATER sometime, joker. It's a whole different scene. Champagne. Caviar Po'Boys. The works.
Finally, that sentence was designed to make very clear that I have important friends who are happy to share their privilege—i.e. free theater tickets—with the likes of me. (either that, or I am a high-priced homosexual escort.) The truth is, I rarely make an effort to attend plays on my own. It seems like an expensive way to hear Billy Joel's Greatest Hits. Vol. 1, as dramatized by members of Cirque Du Soleil. But, beyond the cost (in dollars and lives), I also find I have a hard time sitting through even the most gravely serious staged drama without giggling a little bit.
No matter how well-acted, or how naturalistic a set is designed, the whole experience of live theater just strikes me as a little ridiculous. All of these grown-ups in their fake living room, standing around or in front of perfectly good furniture, holding empty coffee mugs, or bouncing on the balls of their feet just offstage, poised in front of a flimsy prop door, waiting for the audio technician to cue a very loud canned doorbell sound effect. And all of those strategically set family photos because, after all, this is someone's home we're peering into from our theater seats. There is a history here. Never mind the guy seated behind you who keeps rattling phlegm around in his throat; we are all witnessing a life inside a snow globe.
It just seems like such a silly pursuit for adults, even if they are creating (sometimes) serious art. Occasionally I can focus and allow my disbelief to suspend itself but something always draws me back out of the action, and I begin asking myself completely disruptive and inane questions about the construction of the play, rather than about the play itself. For example, I might zero in on a book on a character's bookshelf and think, "Shogun, by James Clavell, huh? That's a weird choice. No one has read that book in the last 25 years. Oh, I'll bet they just purchased a crate of books from the nearest Goodwill store, and filled these bookshelves with them. There is no way this character has read that book. Lousy cheaters." Or, last night, I just kept laughing to myself, thinking of how funny it was that the character of the town sheriff was actually just a grown man in his fifties with a fake, plastic gun strapped to his belt. It just seemed completely idiotic.
I was trying to think of why I lose focus so easily during plays set in very true-to-life locations. (rather than more experimental plays where the only set dressing is a pair of painted black cubes, a portrait of Mao hanging in space, and a garbage can with the word "MORALITY" spray-painted on it.) Is it because a play, because of its limited format, can't easily direct or restrict your focus? Movies, while just as ridiculous as plays with regards to the men-and-women-shooting-plastic-guns-at-invisible-dinosaurs factor, at least exercise greater control in helping you to accept the fantasy they present you. With editing and framing and music and dozens other techniques, movies tell you where to look and, as best as they're able, how to feel.
Unfortunately, in a live production, apart from using lighting or pronounced staging tricks that threaten to compromise any sense of realism a director is trying to achieve, there isn't much that can be done to train the audience. While two characters argue on their couch downstage center (lingo!), if you decide you'd rather stare at the desktop computer upstage-left, and wonder what brand it is or if it's fully operational, a play affords you that luxury. In a movie, if a director doesn't want you to see that computer, you won't see it. In a play, it's not as easy, especially if you are the type of theater-goer who either A) finds home computing equipment fascinating, or B) has the attention span of a small, retarded dog.
I sometimes think about this when I put on a funny wig or outfit in order to make my very important art. How did I allow myself to get this old, without prohibiting myself from acting this stupid? I feel like I must have said this before, to nearly everyone I know, but I honestly can't believe how much I've been encouraged (creatively and even financially) to engage in totally childish behavior. Sometimes I wonder if I'm no different than those theater actors bursting into their fake living rooms after coming out of the "cold" and taking off a pair of winter boots that are neither wet nor dirty. Then I remember what separates me from them: I am very cool, and they are not. I take consolation in this fact.