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By ROBERT BETHUNE
ART TIMES Jul 2003
Readers of this column know that when I get up on my soapbox, Im likely to be holding forth on one of my favorite hobbyhorses: the living presence of the actor. The living, talking, moving, breathing, visible, audible, perhaps even smellable presence of a live human being performing in front of us is absolutely of the essence of what theater is about. It is the one element of the theater that no medium, be it cinema, video, radio, holography or holodeck will ever be able to reproduce. We will always know when the presence of a persona is a fiction and when the presence of a human being is a reality. The Turing test be damned; if we are interacting with an entity that might be a computer and might be a person through the medium of a computer screen, we arent in the presence of that entity anyhow.
Oddly enough, that means that this art of theater, in which communicating a fiction is such a key element, is based not on fiction, but on reality. The difference between live theater and any medium is that the presence of the actor is real; in all other media, the presence of the actor is a fiction, right along with the story. While we watch Ben Affleck or Julia Roberts on screen, the real Ben Affleck or Julia Roberts is off doing another picture, going grocery shopping, or doing whatever else they do. They might even be watching themselves on television right along with us! Not so in the live theater, where we have the flesh-and-blood performer before us in the space, with us in every sense.
All this means that there is another reality which is crucial to the art of theater the living presence of the audience. Its a two-way street. If the performers are there, so are we, and they know were with them just as much as we know theyre with us. Our responses are part of whats going on, just as much as what the performers do. What happens in a theater is an act of communication, and communication isnt communication unless its a two-way street. You cant be in a community by yourself, after all, and thats what communication is all about.
That is why there should be no fourth wall in the theater. The audience should be brought into it, not kept out of it. In plays written before the fourth-wall convention came into use, there are always ways in which the presence of the audience is acknowledged. Thrust stages, prologues, epilogues, soliloquies, asides, takes, lazzi, clowning theatricality and appeal to the imagination are the order of the day. It isnt even hard. All we have to do is let it happen; the whole tendency of the theater is in this direction.
We might say that todays plays run the gamut; that many of todays plays offer the direct contact were talking about. Its true we are producing plays and productions that make it happen. However, go to virtually any theater professional, academic, independent, community or high school and you will find most productions operating on a fourth-wall basis, and a great deal of teaching being done on the basis of fourth-wall doctrine.
So we still have a long way to go to break out of it. We need to acknowledge that theatre made a wrong turn back in the late 19th and early 20th century when we whole-heartedly adopted realism and naturalism and pulled back behind the fourth wall. It hurt us, and it continues to hurt us, and it will go on hurting us until we wake up. Wakey-wakey! Its a beautiful day!
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