There was an awkward moment after the Off-Broadway opening of The Common Air. The play, which links 6 characters during an airport delay, was written with Robert McCaskill, who also directs. I play all six of the waylaid souls, making changes in between, with the help of Ken Rich’s music.
But this is about something bigger than all that. It’s about the entire genre of theater as a whole.
After the show, accolades were pouring in, when I was asked a question by a twentysomething alpha male. “Why do you do theater when you can do TV and film?” Is what his words said, but his tone was more in the neighborhood of, “Why bother with theater at all?”
He had just completed an episode of Gossip Girl, I learned, and his star had risen beyond doing a play, or so his agent told him. I pointed out that James Gandolfini was currently in God Of Carnage and Jude Law was on the boards in Hamlet, written by a very popular British playwright. But the kid was unfazed.
His view was that Gandolfini’s best work was behind him with the end of The Soprano’s— that he couldn’t do any better than a lead in Yasmina Reza’s latest masterpiece.
He had a bit of a ponytail, this punkass, and I fantasized about yanking him to the ground by it like that girl from the New Mexico University women’s soccer team. There were no referees in sight to dispense a yellow. And I could be out the door before he got his feet and trounced me, because even in his skinny pants, he was a good foot taller than I. But instead, I let the wave of anger pass. And made a mental note to pin an “I’m a dipshit” sign on his back when he turned around.
Perhaps it was a semi-legitimate question for a 19 year old glopped in Redden gel. Though I came up through the theater, I’ve learned there are many “actors” who’ve never done a play. It’s a more common in LA than NYC, but it exists pretty much everywhere. Not only have they never done a play– they basically look down on theater; the stage is what you do when you can’t “make it” on TV or in film.
It brings up an important linguistic issue for me. Just as Eskimos have 36 different words for snow, so should we in the arts have different words for different types of actors. If you’ve never ever done a play, for example, you would be called a Schmactor. If you don’t have a Shakespeare monologue at the ready, you would be called a Crapctor. And if you landed a TV show ‘cause your agent packaged you with the actor the network really wanted, you’d be a lucky Bastactord.
I didn’t have time to explain all this to the child. And I would have needed to speak through a beer bong for him to hear me. But I did contemplate a more insightful answer to why theater, after brushing my teeth that night, or as the celebrations would have it, early morning.
A more insightful answer would have been that in no other medium but theater is there such immediately fulfilling reciprocity. To stick with the Eskimo thing, It’s a lot like the difference between eating fresh fish versus frozen. Frozen can be good, but there is something extra special about it when its not: a certain vivacity on the tongue.
You can show a film in front of an audience, but the interaction is one-way; from screen to viewer. What’s distinctive about the stage is that the viewer can and more often than not does, affect the players. In that way, each show is its own unique, living entity.
When an audience reacts– be it with concentrated silence or the collective inhalation after a group laugh– the experienced actor takes it in and returns the energy in the delivery of his/her line, and over all performance. The actor has not choice but to wait out the audience in certain moments, especially after a laugh, so the next line can be heard. In this way, the relationship is literal in a way film is not.
During my first performance, I bobbled a prop, made the save, and then spontaneously offered it to the audience. The fourth wall hadn’t been broken, but I was close enough to see my breath on the glass. The relief of the audience, followed by their empathetic laughter, filled me with a spark of confidence. And it changed the way the next line was delivered. It’s a wondrous thing when it happens.
Two characters in the play speak Arabic: the Immigrant, who opens, and The American, who closes the show. During a performance in LA, it was clear there were Arabic speakers in the house from their reactions. It affected me in a way no rehearsal could have. Knowing Iragis were in the audience, hearing them respond, connected me more deeply to the entangled identities of my own characters.
That experience would never happen on a film set. It’s one small example in many of why any actor bothers doing theater. And why the tradition has thrived for centuries, meaning millennia. To influence, even contribute to the making of a performance, simply by spectating, reacting, breathing, laughing.
It’s why writers keep writing for the stage. It’s why movie stars work for scale to do plays that are 100, or 400, or 2500 years old. It’s why you buy tickets for three times the price, and leave your homes to sit among strangers.
It’s why theater will never die.