Today is World Theatre Day, as you may have no reason to know, and I was directed to an essay for the occasion by Simon McBurney, who has been named the European Ambassador for World Theatre by UNESCO. Or something, I’m not entirely sure what that title is or means, but still. Here’s the paragraph I wanted to pass along:
And because theatre only exists in the present, it also challenges this disastrous view of time. The present moment is always theatre’s subject. Its meanings are constructed in a communal act between performer and public. Not only here, but now. Without the act of the performer the audience could not believe. Without the belief of the audience the performance would not be complete. We laugh at the same moment. We are moved. We gasp or are shocked into silence. And at that moment through drama we discover this most profound truth: that what we thought was the most private, intimate division between us, the boundary of our own individual consciousness, is also without frontier. It is something we share.
When Ken Dodd, the comic and sometime actor, died the other week, two different people made the appreciative comment that at some point in his incredibly lengthy performances you always wound up joining in the laughter, not because you thought the terrible jokes were funny but because he did. And I thought both I’ve felt that and what does that mean? I mean, how can I think something is not funny when I’m laughing at it? Isn’t that what funny is?
I think this connects to something really important: my individual assessment of what is funny and what isn’t funny just… isn’t very important. Even to me. It’s what the audience as a group finds funny that makes me laugh, the group decision overruling the individual one. I am an individual, I carry a unique spark of the Divine flame, I have had my own experiences and my own loves. But so what? My own thoughts aren’t particularly good just because they are mine. I think that we culturally value ideas and opinions more when we can claim that they are unique, independent, or uninfluenced. And that’s just… crap. And I have grown increasingly to feel that it’s dangerous crap.
I have of course had the other experience of sitting stony-faced whilst the circumjacent audience howls with laughter. It’s a terrible feeling—well, I felt awful about it. I felt perplexed, excluded, alienated, sad. Angry, even. I’m not saying it would be better if I somehow decided to join in the laughter, and I don’t think that’s really voluntary anyway, but I can’t say that I was somehow superior for feeling it. I’ve also had the much less unpleasant but still alienating experience of being the only one cachinnating while the circumjacent audience sat stony-faced, and again: it’s impossible for me to claim superiority because I got the joke. These failures of audience-ness, whether they were my fault (vaddevah dat means) or whether they were just odd accidental moments of disconnect, were, well, failures.
The thing about going to a play or a concert or a political rally is that it is a choice to participate in audience-ness. Ideally. It is a choice to enter into a community, for a little while. To be not just a thing but part of a bigger thing. It’s one of the most important things we do, I think. It doesn’t always succeed, but there is always, always the chance that it might. And as Mr. McBurney says: Each night we will reappear. We keep doing it. We keep doing it.
Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,