|It's all fun and games until Michael Cerveris makes you cry.|
This past Saturday, I took a friend to see “Fun Home” at the Public Theatre. It’s based on Alison Bechdel’s comic book, about growing up in a funeral home, discovering she was a lesbian and, around the same time, finding out that her father had been secretly gay. It was alternatively heavy and hilarious stuff, the kind of things that make people with daddy issues cry. Michael Cerveris played Alison’s father and gave one of the most nuanced performance I had ever seen on the stage. It was a performance that was all subtext. Here was a man that had lived in the closet his entire life, and could only step a foot out of it when he thought no one else was looking. He was both an attentive father and a dismissive one, who both saw things and didn’t see them. It was masterful, where you could see a glimpse of the real man underneath but you had to first wade through all of the surface in his character.
It was one of those times where I was really happy to have been there, to say, “I saw that and it was awesome!”
Whenever people talk about live performances, they talk about how nothing can replicate it, how TV and film can’t compare to being in a room and sharing the same space with both performers and the other audience member in the room. How the sense of community both informs and enriches the viewing experience.
I think they’re wrong.
Here is why. I think going to see live theatre is just like going to see a concert, a sports event, an artist talk or a political rally. Because throughout all of it, the underlying motive is the same: to see something amazing and to be able to tell people you know, “I was there.”
When you go to a private Prince concert, you have the privilege to say: “I was there.” And it is, because only you and a few dozen other people could have been there, it’s not infinite like it is if you are watching TV or a movie. That venue can only hold so many people and for that particular night, the only people who could see it were you and those 100-some-odd people. When you are living the day-to-day life, especially in NYC, you start to feel like cogs in a machine, just whirring and functioning and fulfilling your duties, anonymous in a sea of faces.
But when you go to a live event, like theatre or a political rally where Obama is speaking or seeing the Giants play, you feel like you are special, that you (out of all the millions of people in the world) are lucky enough to have witnessed that moment, that might never come again.
I feel very lucky that I am living in New York City at this point in time, and that I was able to see “Fun Home,” and to see Michael Cerveris give that performance. It’s why people go see stars on Broadway, so they can go home and tell their husband or friends, “I saw James Bond/Daniel Craig in person doing Pinter.” Not many people can say that, but you can.
And I think that’s what all of us really want, or are really longing for when we go to the theatre. We want to see a piece that moves us, that makes us feel that we were important because for that evening, we got to see that piece, that performance, and that THAT was a monumental moment, and that we feel lucky and blessed for having been a part of it.
I see so many tweets from people who, after going to a particular show that they love, will say something like, “Saw ‘Mr. Burns: A Post Electric Play’, I feel so lucky to see such a ground-breaking piece of theatre” (I may have written a tweet like that after seeing the play.)
So what can theatre learn from other event-type performances like concerts or sports games?
I don’t know. Maybe find a way to give the casual audience-member faith, that if they take the chance on that play, they may see something that they can tweet effusively about?
That faith and sense of being open to wherever an unfamiliar play or an actor may take you has been lost in our culture, most likely as a result of being able to get whatever you want (TV, film, food, dates) whenever you want it. But football games and concerts still draw in mass audiences, because 7 times out of 10, ticket-buyers are already familiar with that team or musician and because of that, they have faith that they will have a tweetable, Instagramable, unforgettable experience.
The question is: How do we get that faith back for the performing arts?