Theater's staging grace

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This article is, in some ways, a continuation of my piece on genre fiction. Together they form a two-act drama I would like to entitle: "Odes to Dying Art Forms." Next week, this column will discuss how iPhone apps are making the ancient art of finger painting irrelevant. The week after, well, by that time journalism will probably have finally kicked the bucket. But this week, this week I want to talk about theater.

I've always found it amusing how much people hate the theater. Or at least say they hate the theater, because most of the people who "hate" the theater have never been inside one. They reserve their contempt for whatever satanic rituals they imagine to go on inside those inscrutable buildings - some vague impression leftover from an '80s teen movie of kids wearing all black clothing, speaking French and calling each other "darling."

The second stereotype of theater seems to be that it is some form of group therapy for people with bruised childhood egos and a penchant for Sondheim.

Well, darlings, it's some of that - but to be honest, black washes me out, my French accent is atrocious and I love my parents. The most important thing I ever learned to do in a theater class was not how to "express" myself or how to "become" a character. The most important thing I ever learned to do was walk.

You know the saying "walk a mile in another man's shoes?" Well we did.

We studied the art of walking. We observed how nervousness could manifest itself in an uneven gait, the affect of a heavy tread on the way you hold your shoulders, the difference between walking heel to toe versus toe to heel. You learn, literally, from the bottom-up. Acting is a craft. Anybody can act in the same way that anyone can paint: badly at first. It takes patience and skill and dedication to make a great actor.

Which is something that Hollywood seems to have forgotten. Notice that "the new stars" are always young. Twenty-five max, fresh-faced and dimpled. Nobody is ever "discovered" at the age of 30 or 40 or 50 - but with acting, as with any craft, you get better as you mature.

Now, I was never a very good actor. I liked being on stage too much. In the middle of a dramatic reconciliation the corner of my lips would begin to rise - the ascent inexorable: "Hey Mom and Dad, look at me! I'm on stage! Isn't this exciting!" It took me a few more years to find my passion for oratory. But even after I gave up acting, I've continued to love the theater.

So it broke my heart a little, when at my CalSO, I asked the advisor, "so what's your theater department like?" To which he responded, "well ... we have one?"

This ambiguous answer was slightly more positive than the reaction I generally receive when trying to get my friends to see shows with me. One dear friend turned down a free ticket to see "The Arabian Nights" at the Berkeley Rep to go on a beer run. Another informed me that he had been traumatized by a childhood encounter with "Little Shop of Horrors" and had sworn never to enter a theater again. But mostly I was met with embarrassed silences, mild coughing and a "so I beat my high score on Robot Unicorn!"

Yet, that kind of reaction seems so counterintuitive. Theater is, at its basis, a performance. The actors, the writer, the director, the techies sweat blood and tears for eight weeks to create something for an audience to watch.

So why aren't audiences interested? Part of the problem, I think, lies in the perception of the theater. It appears as an older tired, even archaic medium - stripped of its glamour by movies and of its relevance by television. Most people struggled through Shakespeare and gave it up as a bad job.

Our generation has yet to find the voices of the writers, artists and politicians that will define us. Theater is not a youth-obsessed medium in the same way that movies and popular music are. There is no theater version of a Disney popstar, no concept of a "tween," no "Angels in America Go to Summer Camp," and in honesty, I'd argue the medium is richer for it.

There is, of course, another reason for Theater's decline. Movies. Theater today is haunted by the spectre of film. It can't compete with the production values, the gloss, the exotic locales or CGI effects. It's a question that gets brought up in every theater class, the one everyone is afraid to answer.

Why theater? What can it do that movies cannot? Inevitably, it comes down to this. Theater is alive. It's separate from film, in the same way that watching a Lakers game on television cannot compete with courtside seats. It's the electricity and charge of the space. The feeling of being part of a crowd. The event of performance. The knowledge that those actors are here tonight, right now, on this stage for you-to make you cringe, to make you laugh, to make you cry.

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