Back to the boards

In an increasingly flat-screen world, stars like Al Pacino and Gwyneth Paltrow look to theater for a human connection. Will the rest of us follow?

Published March 4, 2003 8:00PM (EST)

What do Al Pacino, Whoopi Goldberg, Jennifer Jason Leigh, Antonio Banderas, Nicole Kidman, Hugh Grant, Ralph Fiennes, Sigourney Weaver, Macaulay Culkin, Rosie Perez, Vanessa Redgrave and Kathleen Turner all have in common? All of them have lately acted, or are soon to act, not on the big or little screen, but on the stages of Broadway, Off-Broadway, Off-Off-Broadway and London's West End -- reversing a 50-year trend that saw stage actors flee the boards to fling their images up on a thousand-thousand hovering specks of light called the movies.

Why are they doing this? It seems as counterintuitive as if the fall of the Berlin Wall were to prompt a massive exodus from the progressive West to the labor-intensive East -- refugees heading away from easeful technology, toward effortful improvisation. Theatrical shows don't reach as many households as movies do, don't earn as much money for the actors as film and television contracts do, don't offer the kind of verisimilitude the movies do, don't have as many special effects, and don't offer as much directorial leeway (you can't shout "Cut!" midscene onstage, retouch a star's wrinkles or dub a bungled line).

So why would actors want to exchange the high-tech perks of screen fame for the sweat and greasepaint of the boards? For that matter -- it's relevant to ask this in the same breath -- why is it that people are so keen, in cash-strapped times, to go and see them? In New York, advance sales are down (the blue-rinse set is not shelling out as reliably as before) but spontaneous buyers are up. During a week in February that the government had scarily branded with a Code Orange alert, theater attendance in New York soared 26 percent over the same week last year, the New York Times reported. This was especially interesting when you consider that theater attendance in 2002 had jumped 5 percent from 2001, and gross sales had increased by 15 percent.

At least three of last year's new shows were undisputed hits: "Hairspray," "La Bohème" and "Movin' Out." To this honor roll, if you were feeling generous, you could add four others: "Far Away," with Frances McDormand; "The Mercy Seat," with Sigourney Weaver and Liev Schreiber; "Flower Drum Song" (a spectacular retooling of the old Rodgers and Hart musical loaded with Vegas-style dance numbers); and "Medea," with Fiona Shaw. Two of the succès d'estime came from London -- "Far Away" and "Medea" -- underlining how tight the special relationship between our two countries has lately grown, in theaters of war and drama. It smacks of what AOL Time Warner executives might once have called "synergy."

Early this year, Gwyneth Paltrow got an Olivier nomination for acting in "Proof" on the London stage. Young American playwright Christopher Shinn got one, too. The English theater-and-film director Sam Mendes directed two repertory productions of "Twelfth Night" and "Uncle Vanya" in Brooklyn in January; later this spring, he will direct "Gypsy" on Broadway with an American cast, starring Bernadette Peters. Theater attendance is not up in London as it is in New York, but two new theaters opened in 2002 all the same, and a series called "Broadway in London" opened at the John Labatt Centre in February, starting off with "Cabaret." A traveling version of the stage musical "Chicago" is playing to full houses in Moscow, of all places. What is it that is drawing movie actors and movie audiences back to the old-fashioned theater? I have an answer.

Three months ago, after having worked for a decade as a freelance writer and researcher, I became a theater editor at a national magazine. I started work (or rather, was cannoned into the ring) during the opening week of New York's Broadway season. I had been a regular theatergoer before then, had acted in plays and musicals, and (masochistically) had produced a staged version of "Nicholas Nickleby" in college. In the '90s I even wrote a musical about Moscow (well, nearly). So, I was no stranger to the theater, but I had not thought about it in any depth. My Fridays, like most people's, were more often spent out with friends or at the movies than in any space where a grinning pack of strangers was likely to hoof and declaim under a hundred gelled lights. Since October, though, my work has compelled me to see more than 80 performances, and this crash course has put before my eyes again and again the singular virtue of this form of entertainment, and made me appreciate the allure it holds for overworked, red-eyed, self-isolating modern civilization. I call it the human component.

Almost everything we citizens of the modern, industrialized world see these days -- when we are not talking to one another in person -- we see on a screen. Waking up, we punch the off button on digital alarm clocks, turn on the television for the morning news, and click on the home computer to harvest the night's crop of e-mail. Heading to work, we drive past a battery of yellow-bulbed traffic instruction signs, or, if we live in a town with a subway, we walk past a gantlet of neon advertisements and digital stock and newswire tickers.

At the office, screens of continuously streaming infotainment are inlaid in the walls of the elevators that take us from the lobby to the floor where our cubicles cluster; once in the cubicles, we turn on the computer and begin eight to 12 hours of intense mind-lock with a screen a foot from our faces. We spend much of the day surfing the net or composing messages to colleagues, friends and relatives on e-mail or IM. The collective, regular, repetitive patter of key clicks from countless keyboards echoes through our corridors all day long, mimicking the lulling, looping rhythms of jungle rainfall.

Years ago, I read an essay by the waspish British critic Gilbert Adair that heralded the coming supremacy of the screen, and hailed the day, not far off, when books and newspapers would be remaindered for good. At the time (it was 1997), even though I was enraptured by e-mail, addicted to the word processor, and devoted to film, I felt a qualm. Today, that qualm is much magnified. Screens are too much with me lately, as, I suspect, with everybody. I treasure every nonscreen interaction -- they grow fewer and fewer.

As the day's incessant, relentless, pulsating, glowing barrage of screen-driven communication winds down, I, and everybody else, journey home, turn on the television and watch the evening news or a football game, or pop in a video or DVD, or play Nintendo, or computer Scrabble, or computer poker. Sometimes, we leave our houses and pay to sit in a darkened cinema with a couple hundred anonymous companions and watch a movie. At $8 to $10 a ticket, movies are a cheap escape from reality. But movies offer no escape from the omnipresent, sapping screens that tether the eyes and dog us, day after day, hour after hour, bidding us to nearly human (but not genuinely human) interaction, which, though it engages us, does not necessarily nourish the soul. If someone on a screen throws a ball, nobody in the audience could ever catch it. On a stage, though, the possibility of playing catch is always there.

Despite all the talk of computer "interactivity," interpreting screens is a solitary experience; arguably, this is true even when what is on the screen is a movie. A movie is a static, closed, finished product, like a book. Actors on the screen are not really present; their shadows are captured in one configuration eternally, like words embodied in three dimensions. Each audience member can absorb the movie as he would a book, with his own private interaction, independent of the reactions of the people around him, or of the reaction of the actors on the screen to the audience's reaction. Just as sitcoms have laugh tracks, movies have life tracks. They approximate the real thing, but they are canned. There can be a fire in the movie house, and the movie won't change. An audience member might boo or faint or die, but the movie goes on. On-screen, Spider-Man always lands on the right ledge, a dancer never stumbles on her high kick and nobody is ever not ready for her close-up. A movie does not have good nights, bad nights and transcendent nights; what it can be is entirely encompassed by what it is when it leaves the editor's hands. In contrast, the theater, even when its dramas are at their hokiest or most artificial, cannot avoid being live and changeable. Seeing a play is an escape to reality, a refreshing dive into a pool of flawed humanity that often seems more real than the workday.

I don't mean to deprecate the movies as an art form, or to make the capricious claim that movies are doomed; that would be inane. Movies are here to stay, and should be, and millions more people see movies and videos than will ever bother to book tickets for theater and dance. But going to a movie, however stimulating, does not in itself constitute genuine human interplay, in the way that going to a basketball game, or a musical, does. Subliminally, people know that. And I believe that the recent renewal of interest in the stage has to do with the conscious or unconscious desire of screen-dazed workers -- including movie stars themselves -- to weave more living, breathing, screen-free moments into their leisure hours. After a protracted love affair, the public is at last "over" the phenomenon of screens: The screen is no longer enough.

Evidence of this abounds. This month, the movie musical "Chicago" was nominated for 13 Oscars, the most nominations for a movie musical since "Cabaret," back in 1972. I would assert that the movie's popularity comes from the way it approximates the actual experience of attending a Broadway show. Through all the filmic razzle-dazzle shines a hunger for life that you usually see not on the subtle, controlled faces of film actors, but on the glowing, sweat-beaded faces of earnest, stage-bound hoofers and declaimers, with their too-wide smiles, bugged-out eyes and visible desire to please.

Then there are the movie stars mentioned at the beginning of this piece, who have lately chosen to walk among us. When the people onstage are well-known movie actors, as happens more and more frequently, the current of interconnection grows all the stronger. Because of the 24/7 media exposure of celebrities' public and private lives, the public thinks it already knows its stars, as if they were flashy neighbors who don't keep the blinds drawn. They come expressly to see the familiar faces. In London, the West End hit "The Play What I Wrote" wooed audiences by putting Ralph Fiennes, Hugh Grant and the like within eyeshot. This March, Mike Nichols directs an Americanized version in New York. But what we may not have recognized is that the stars like to be seen as much as the public likes to see them. The firmament is descending among the stargazers, so as to share in its own veneration. When actors want to directly address their audience, or renew their personal sense of relevance, they take advantage of the screen-fed relationship the public feels with them, and take their cause to the boards.

Last fall, as President Bush pursued his increasingly unpopular buildup toward war with Iraq, Al Pacino and Billy Crudup used their name recognition to lure a captive audience Off-Off-Broadway to performances of Brecht's cautionary tale "The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui." Walking and talking 10 feet from the paying public, the actors got to unleash every scrap of conviction they possessed to drive Brecht's warning home. Whether you liked the show or not (I loved it, but critical reviews were mixed), you sensed that the stars longed for more personal feedback than the screen allows them. They longed to exist for their fans outside of their screen personae, longed to be grounded by that same human component that grounds the people who watch them.

When you watch a live performance, you are receiving the best effort that a stageful of humans can produce in real time, without the aid of editing, digital imaging, stunt doubles or superhuman powers. You are seeing people who have devoted their lives to making their bodies and voices into tools that convey intensity of feeling to other people; to sadden, exhilarate, tease, humor, beguile and (or) teach. Actors and dancers are not ironic about their craft, even when the show they are performing is itself ironic; they care intensely about what they do, and they have a need -- you might call it a weakness, even a dementia -- to entertain others. Sitting in the seats at a Saturday matinee among several hundred other theatergoers -- old people scrabbling lozenges out of wax paper; middle-aged couples out on anniversary evenings; young people with their parents, trying to hide their tears at the schmaltzy "Tuesdays With Morrie" (a play about a man and his dying mentor); gaggles of yuppies guffawing at Harvey Fierstein's basso-profundo hausfrau role in "Hairspray"; bespectacled oldies at history plays and Shakespeare; hipsters at "Betty Rules" or "Debbie Does Dallas" -- you sense that the actors pick up on the audience's reception of the play, and adjust their performances accordingly. It's an animal thing: The public can't help reacting to the players, and the players can't help reacting to the public.

Even when a performance is not excellent, even when it is wretched (which is not all that often; all that springs to mind is "Imaginary Friends," a cover-your-eyes-embarrassing musical treatment of the literary feud between Lillian Hellman and Mary McCarthy), its human component never fails to humble and move me. Even in "Imaginary Friends," the actresses did a splendid job, the chorus was bright and lustrous. They couldn't help it if the whole schmear was a disaster. How can you not be respectful? A handful of living, giving people who have worked on a production for weeks, months or longer (most of them earning next to no money and having no job security whatever) submit themselves to other people's judgment and criticism. For the two hours you sit before them -- perhaps the only two hours of your day you spend away from a buzzing screen -- your focus is urgently sought by other humans. Watching a movie requires no real suspension of disbelief, but live performance requires active collusion. Spectators need to exercise their imaginations in order to complete the dramatic spell. The cast of every play, every musical, every dance, concert or opera, does not only include the performers, it includes the audience.

Two weeks ago, thinking about screens and the theater, I went to my bookshelf, pulled out Gilbert Adair's old essay collection "Surfing the Zeitgeist," reread his screen piece and agreed that I still disagreed with it. Flipping through the book, I found an essay about the theater, in which he gleefully sounded its death knell. "That there is a progressive disaffection from the theater cannot be doubted," he scoffed. "Think of the last time you were in a theater. Think of the sense of occasion that you experienced, the sense that, for once in your life, you were doing something exceptional ... Now it is unimportant whether the play was a comedy or not, whether it was by Shakespeare or David Hare or someone you had never heard of, when one of the characters on that stage said something that was even mildly amusing, you laughed. At Shakespeare's feeblest puns, puns a thousand times overtaken by three centuries ... you actually found yourself laughing aloud." At the movies, he explained, people only laugh when something is genuinely funny. At the theater, though, "You laughed, in short, because it would have been rude not to, because the person making the joke was standing in front of you."

If that is so, what is wrong with that? Think of the last time you experienced a sense of occasion, the last time you felt you were doing something exceptional -- the last time a person in front of you was trying hard to make you laugh, and cared that you did. That's a lot to happen to somebody sitting in a chair in the dark. Were you sitting in front of a screen? No? You were at the theater? Well -- did you applaud?

By Liesl Schillinger

Liesl Schillinger writes on culture and sexual politics for the New York Times, the Washington Post and many other publications. She is on the staff of the New Yorker.

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