Theatre Matters

Contemplations on the dramatic arts from a national perspective

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Steven Oxman has contributed to such publications as the Los Angeles Times, American Theatre, Stagebill, and, most frequently, Variety, for which he has written over 300 television and theatre reviews.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Theatre, Film, and the Great Blogger Debate

A nice number of very intelligent arts bloggers are discussing a question that goes to the heart of this blog's subject. So it's time for me to join in the conversation -- just as everyone else is probably getting tired of it.

It began by A.C. Douglas asking George Hunka why he should bother going to the theatre when film can do better. ACD's own summation of his question: "Why should live theater survive as an art form today when film seems better able to do a play justice?"

George (my savior -- see previous posting) responded thoughtfully. Read here.

Isaac Butler at Parabasis chimed in. His first posting on the issue is here.

I've also been enjoying uTopian TurtleTop on the matter, particularly for his sharing of moments he's experienced in the theatre that were un-filmic.

First, I'm starting to understand the blogosphere a bit better. When an argument like this starts, you can't miss a day or so much has been argued that it'll take a week to catch up. Some of it's good and provocative; some of it's not-so-good and provocative. If the episode was intended to help A.C. Douglas understand the aesthetics of theatre any better, it's obviously been a miserable failure. He still doesn't get it and won't. (At the risk of offending him and maybe others, there's something about his writing that I find masturbatory -- others' arguments are valuable only for self-indulgent titillation and abuse, not for him to engage with. If he'd like to respond and prove me wrong, might I ask him: do you go to see live music, even though the studio can do it "better"? If so, why?)

No matter what, his challenge has been helpful in forcing others to articulate their love of the theatre.

I spent too much time churning my mind on the theoretical arguments and how I could contribute, but enough has been said. Too much philosophizing on the theatre makes me mad at myself. I'd like to say something a little different.

What would happen if theatre stopped existing?

OK, the world wouldn't change. It's important to say that and others have kept this perspective too.

But the film world would surely be the worse for it. Someone (sorry, don't have the patience to re-find and source) mentioned the concern that theatre is often considered the minor leagues, simply a farm team for the film world. In an economic sense, it is, and we shouldn't try to fight it, cuz we'll lose.

Sam Mendes was able to make a first film of significant depth ("American Beauty") because he understood how to work with actors from his years as a stage director. There's something so much fuller in the film work of actors and directors who've gone through the rigors of developing a part for the stage and finding a way to re-create it each and every performance. Sure, plenty of pure film stars are extremely effective, but it's performance that's all inspiration and little craft. The best has both.

Paul Giamatti's performance in "Sideways" is a good example. He was trained for the stage, and his craft is obvious. It's not easy to make yourself quite so vulnerable, or to build up a head of sincere steam for a line like, "If anyone orders Merlot, I'm leaving!"

I wish that more film directors and actors would recognize the power of seeing a sustained performance. I want longer takes, and shots that keep one actor on screen continuously so we can see the emotional movement happen and not have the result suddenly present in the next close-up. Yes, film reels can only go so long, and that has long limited any take to 16 minutes at most. But all that is potentially changing with digital technology, and 16 minutes is a long time anyway.

Film can do a lot of what theatre can do, and can often do it better. But film can learn lessons from theatre that it too often ignores.