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Why go to the theatre when you can watch Netflix?

Mr Brad Jennings, Head of Co-curricular Drama

I can distinctly remember seeing my first play — not a musical or an amateur production, but real theatre. I travelled on a bus with several classmates from the country town of Maryborough to La Boite’s old Roundhouse Theatre in Hale Street. In the cramped vinyl seats of the darkened auditorium, I witnessed a hilarious and moving story about a young director, fresh out of university who staged a production of the famous opera, Così Fan Tutte, with patients in a mental asylum. As a naïve country boy, I found the experience intimate, visceral and extremely memorable.

This experience remains, for me, what good theatre should be.

In his iconic book, The Empty Space, Peter Brook claims, ‘I can take any empty space and call it a bare stage. A man walks across this empty space, whilst someone else is watching him, and this is all that is needed for an act of theatre to be engaged’ (Brook, 1968). While fundamentally, I agree with this statement, I would argue that theatre-makers need to do much more to engage a present-day audience.

When entertainment is literally at our fingertips, theatre can be a tough sell. I can flick through ‘Suggestions for you’ on Netflix and find a dozen films and television programmes that have been specifically matched to me, based on my previous viewing. Netflix already knows what I like, and without having to leave the couch, I can consume as much as I want for less than $15 dollars a month — tough competition when you’re looking at an average ticket price of $83 for live performance in Australia. What’s more, if I get bored during a ‘slow’ scene, I can scroll mindlessly through my social media feed and watch videos of cats being cute.

Why should people pay good money to experience stories told by real people in just one take? Because a theatrical experience is a once-only, unrepeatable, shared event.

The presence of a live audience is essential, as Brook suggests. Theatre has always been communal. From the Greek amphitheatres to the stalls of the Globe, theatre has been for the common (wo)man. Audiences were encouraged to revel in the action — to cheer, to ‘boo’, to participate in the storytelling. I distinctly remember one of my university lecturers regaling us with a story of the original Globe Theatre being burned to the ground after a stage cannon, shot during a performance of Henry VIII, accidentally ignited the thatch roof of the theatre. What fascinated me was that beneath the charred ruins, archaeologists found a veritable midden of pistachio shells among the original foundations. It seems these were a favourite of Shakespearean audiences. I couldn’t help but imagine the sound of those shells cracking while Hamlet soliloquises, verging on madness as the ghost of his dead father visits him in the still of night … and to think I find it irritating when someone’s phone vibrates during a show!

Theatre demands engagement; it requires us to be active, not passive. In Ayad Akhtar’s article in The New York Times, ‘An Antidote to Digital Dehumanisation? Live Theatre’, he contemplates, ‘a living being before a living audience. Relationship unmediated by the contemporary disembodying screen. Not the appearance of a person but the reality of one’ (Akhtar, 2017). Theatre exists in a fleetingly finite time and place. No two performances are the same and audiences respond differently each time; their energy feeds the actors, unknowingly influencing the dynamic of the performance. Furthermore, the intimacy of theatre, whereby the audience’s senses are engaged in decoding and responding to the story and characters, results in an experience that is immediate, unforgettable and often cathartic.

We are so fortunate at Girls Grammar to have a Co-curricular Drama programme that offers our talented students the opportunity not only to engage with professional artists, but also to give a season of performances — to feel the thrill of opening night and to battle against the dreaded second night blues with energy and tenacity. In the past few years, our audiences have witnessed young women transform into persecuted Iranian men, callous soldiers, disenfranchised children, French heroines and desperate mothers. Those lucky enough to experience these productions have been transported into other worlds. They have witnessed theatrical magic and their imaginations have been captured and stretched in ways that no episode of Riverdale ever could enable.

When selecting plays for our 2018 season, I wanted the audience to be challenged and engaged. The Senior Drama Production, Rhinoceros by Eugene Ionesco, is an absurdist play which — despite having been written sixty years ago — resonates strongly with contemporary audiences. The illogical nature of the plot, along with the repetitive use of dialogue, challenges the audience to actively consider the central ideas of conformity, culture and morality. This couldn’t be more pertinent than when we consider how mob mentality is so dominant in our world today, defining and shaping a culture of people struggling to think for themselves. As the central character, Berenger, attempts to make sense of his mundane existence, and asks ‘what is life without purpose?’, the audience must listen closely in order to find meaning in the nonsense. As Ionesco writes, ‘it is not the answer that enlightens us, but the question’ (as quoted in Wells, 1997).

So as you reach for the remote tonight, determined to finish the last couple of episodes of that season that’s been consuming your spare time, take a moment to check the programme of our state theatre company, or perhaps visit the opera or ballet. Challenge yourself, at least once this year, to see live theatre. You won’t regret it.

 

References:

Brook. P (1996) The Empty Space. Penguin Books, p. 11.

Ionesco. E (1970) Découvertes (1970), as quoted in Wells, S. (1997) Choosing the Future: The Power of Strategic Thinking, p. 15.

Akhtar. A (2017) An Antidote to Digital Dehumanisation. New York Times

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