When I was in fourth grade, plays at school were a big deal. We got out of class just to rehearse for them–for a good several hours. At Sparta Alpine School, we would carry our desk chairs with us down the hall in a long, long single file line, which led us to the auditorium/gym. There we would set up camp and sit for the following two hours (or so it seemed) and wait. In the days leading up to a peformance, there were probably 300 of us from three grades in that auditorium. Those who had roles to rehearse would take the stage, while the rest of us pulled out our homework or chatted amongst ourselves. It was a time like no other, and though it’s been a long time since I’ve thought of those days, the memories I do have are vivid.
As much as I enjoyed makebelieve, though, I learned early on that I’d never be an actor. Maybe that’s why theater always intrigued me.
My parents started my brother and me out early, dragging us to see “The Nutcracker” and “Jesus Christ Superstar,” twice each — all, I think, at the Papermill Playhouse in New Jersey. I also saw a play with my school at the Papermill, and another — “Annie Get Your Gun” — with my best friend and her mom.
I was still in elementary school when I saw my first high school play — “Camelot,” from which I remember only one scene: When Arthur was trapped in an invisible box that challenged the actor to have to mime his successive actions.
In junior high school I tried to be a part of “Annie” and “Oliver,” but, I repeat: No acting skills. So I joined the stage crew. I learned from my homeroom and art teacher how to paint shadows on streetlights; I learned that if I could see the audience from behind the curtain, they could see me; and, when I was lucky, I earned nonspeaking roles in the chorus — like a popcorn vendor, or, later in high school, a tour guide.
No matter in which capacity I managed to insert myself into any given play, I think I most enjoyed watching. There’s just something about live theater that’s so unlike reading or watching movies, and I don’t think I really thought about it that much before this week, before this latest play I watched.
What sets live theater apart from every other form of storytelling is the shared experience — among the actors themeselves, between the cast and audience, and among the audience members. In that moment, while experiencing a play, everyone is feeling the same emotion. Audiences watching a movie might share an experience, but only among themselves; not with the actors who performed their roles a year earlier and since have moved onto new projects and all but forgotten how they felt while portraying characters that only now are viewers meeting. Readers absorbing a book, no matter how entirely, are experiencing something alone. That might be the reasoning behind the One Book, One Community movement, but no matter how many people read a book in unison, they still remain alone with the story in their own minds.
But in a play, you know as you watch that what you see is real. So I’ve been wondering this week how writing can recreate such a moment and if it possibly can and if it even should. The point of reading a story in novel form is to immerse yourself in a story, to use your imagination to paint a picture. Then you might get to watch the movie version, which almost always is disappointing. But if you were to see the movie first, you might love it; you might think it was the best story every told, and the book, in turn will never live up to that standard afterward. Where, then, do plays fit in? I know from recent experience that not all plays are equal, and that plays of stories I already know feel to me like scaled down, cheap versions of the movies or books I love. But then something like what I saw this week wacks you in the face and knocks you on your back and threatens everything you ever knew about storytelling.
Maybe a book can’t do all that. But wouldn’t it be cool if it did?