Friday, November 21, 2008

Nothing Real About It

I want the words "realistic" and "realism" to be eliminated from theatrical vocabulary!

Last night, I had the pleasure of seeing Adam Bock's The Receptionist at CoHo Productions. Expertly paced and staged by Rose Riordan - and executed with immense depth by the cast - this show will probably go down as my favorite of the year. What was shocking, however, was that afterward a colleague said to me, "It was so very realistic." WHAT?! There isn't one thing "realistic" about this show. There are naturalistic moments, yes. Real coffee brewing onstage - dialogue that seems almost improvised it's so mundane - an actor dripping saliva onto the carpet because she has actually stuffed her mouth full of salt water taffy to the point of an explosion - but the brilliance of Bock is that his plays beg for this approach and yet are often nestled inside a heap of outrageous scenarios - not realistic, but ARTISTIC.

As I often lecture to my students - the act of seeing theatre is a bit absurd, yes? We make this agreement when we buy our tickets to suspend our disbelief. We decide that we will play make believe with the actors. Even in what I call "boring living room plays" we must do this. A curtain goes up and on the stage is a perfect replica of a living room...this is absurd. And as perfect a replica as it may be - it is still a huge leap of imagination to play along. There is no realism - there is nothing realistic about any of it. And THAT is the magic of theatre. It begs us to use our imaginations and to go along for the ride. It begs us to buy into the outrageous - often to escape - or perhaps to experience catharsis through something entirely NOT real.

When my students say, "I liked that because it was so realistic, " I say, "Well, do you like Lord of the Rings?"

And they most often say, "I love it!"

"And do you find yourself buying these characters and their relationships?"

And they mostly say, "Yes. I cried."

And I say, "But that's fantasy."

And they pause. And then I say, "The word you're looking for is 'truthful' not 'realistic'."

Point I'm making is - anything can be credible in the theatre if the artists have transported the audience with integrity. Then there is that element of truth. My issue here stems from the fact that young people are getting more and more bound by this notion of "real" - they are less and less imaginative each year - and the word "realistic" comes up time and time again. They start seeking only the stories that can "actually happen". But that flies against what I feel theatre is supposed to do -which is to unchain our minds. There's nothing wrong with writing what we term a "realistic" play - but to believe that's the ultimate goal...or to congratulate a play based on that word - it rubs me wrong.

In the theatre, anything can happen. And it's truth we seek from art, not realism.

1 comment:

Jeremy said...

Thank you! If only Marquez was a playwright. Wait, Tony Kushner filled that role admirably for a time. Next batter up? hmmmm