Performance art

Making sense of the sublime

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Over the past few months, I have been watching television shows and movies at an alarming rate. I watched all eight seasons of “Game of Thrones” in two weeks — which honestly left me quite depressed — and rewatched all eight “Harry Potter” films in a matter of days. Although I normally binge-watch an excessive amount of television over the summer, the social distancing guidelines currently in place have pushed me to consume an unprecedented amount of content. But even with so many films and shows just a click away, I’ve also really been missing the joy, inspiration and connection I experience when watching live theater. 

The closing of theaters, along with my increase in TV consumption, has made me realize the important role live theater played in my life. And, more generally, it has helped me conceptualize my relationship to performance art, both in relation to theater and television.

This past January, I watched an improvised performance by Synergy Theater of “Spontaneous Agatha Christie: An Improvised Miss Marple Murder Mystery.” It was an incredibly memorable experience, as it was the first play I had ever watched in which I felt directly involved with the art form unfurling before me.

The cast members were fantastic, taking suggestions from the audience — requested at regular intervals by an actor playing Agatha Christie — in their stride to craft hilariously engaging characters. The actors adopted new and outrageous professions, personalities and character flaws on the spot — most hilariously, the father of the love interest, who was proclaimed by a man in the audience as a mime.

Although I was never on stage with these actors, our relationship was uniquely inspiring and special to me. Most plays are not led by audience members in the same way that improv shows are, and yet they are all influenced by them. If the audience laughs long and loud at a humorous scene, for example, the actors are encouraged to continue with their chosen mannerisms. But if an audience remains silent when it is expected to laugh, the actors must adapt their voices, movements and attitudes to better accommodate the atmosphere of the room.

In contrast, television actors don’t act in response to the atmosphere of a room. Their role, as vessels of an artform, is to create a completely separate world. 

These past few weeks, as I was rewatching the “Harry Potter” franchise, I was struck by the perplexing disconnect I felt. 

I absolutely love “Harry Potter” and grew up both reading the books and watching the movies. So, it wasn’t the quality of the franchise itself that triggered this disappointing epiphany; rather, it was the lack of connection I felt toward the actors, which conflicts with the intimate relationship I have to the characters in my mind. 

Firstly, I wasn’t involved in the storyline playing out before me. I couldn’t cheer when Hermione delivered a particularly witty line with that classic “everyone is such an idiot” look on her face, nor could I express my displeasure with Daniel Radcliffe’s acting in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, which I felt was fairly underwhelming. 

I’ve found that the most jarring aspect of film, in comparison to theater, is the lack of connection between actors and audience. Films are supposed to transport us into another world, but we are not a part of that world and are not acknowledged in our role as the audience. Rather, we assume the role of bystanders, watching events unfold before us while having no influence or connection to the creative process.

However, this isn’t to say that film lacks impact in comparison to theater. Film has the ability to communicate emotions, storylines and aesthetics in ways that live theater is inherently incapable of. Camera angles, lighting, music, the pacing of a scene, the insight given into a characters life — all these aspects work together to convey specific and sudden emotions upon an audience. In this way, theater is actually limited by its proximity to its audience, and through its realism, paradoxically, it can become unbelievable.

But for me, performance art isn’t about realism. It’s about the ability to empathize — and thereby emulate — the human condition. It’s about knowing that, collectively, our experiences are known and that our feelings are seen and understood. 

So while film has an arsenal of highly effective techniques and effects at its disposal, and theater is limited to a highly variable audience connection, I’ve realized that the in-person give-and-take of theater is what makes it a truly important form of performance art. 

Theater is the act of an audience observing, understanding and reflecting upon a performance, but it is also the subsequent acknowledgement of the audience by the actors. That combination of seeing and being seen is what makes theater beautiful, and what makes me miss it so much.

Nathalie Grogan writes the Monday arts & entertainment column on art as a method of communication. Contact her at [email protected].