Why Live? A Question for 21st-Century Theater

In a moment when our lives are becoming increasingly virtual, why bother telling stories the old-fashioned way, with a bunch of bodies gathered in a room?

  • Theater
    Theater artists of any age and experience set out to make plays because they’re attempting to access what theater does best: A live engagement that forces us to confront the humanity of others.
    Photo by Flickr/Sean
  • Drama Masks
    I vividly remember a scene in which the Nazis killed the power to the beer hall. The lights in the theatre abruptly cut out and five minutes of the play were performed in total darkness.
    Photo by Flickr/MikeCogh

  • Theater
  • Drama Masks

Eight performers wearing cheap red cloaks and yellow cardboard crowns sit in a row of eight wooden chairs along the edge of the stage. Plainly visible below their cloaks are the performers’ everyday street clothes. Footlights illuminate their faces, recalling both vaudeville and the flashlight held below one’s chin while telling a ghost story. In the upstage darkness there is a table with a pitcher of water, bottles of beer, and snacks; the kind of table one might set out at a party.

A King begins to tell a story. He recounts it as one might to a friend over a pint, casually and without affect: “Once upon a time, a lonely night-watchman noticed a pixellated spot in the footage from a security camera installed in a corridor. The footage was otherwise clear except for this one little spot of pixellation. Intrigued by this anomaly, the night-watchman went to investigate, only to discover that the pixellation existed in the fabric of reality itself…”

“Stop,” says one of the Queens, who revises the story: “Once upon a time, a lonely night-watchman watched the footage from a security camera installed in a corridor and saw his mother…” She continues telling the story until another Queen stops her and begins telling a story about a sex-crazed plumber. Then, another King stops her and returns to the story of the night-watchman, until he too is interrupted, this time by a King telling a story about a talking dog. Over the course of the night, during these stories, a sprawling cast of characters multiplies, as do subplots involving gay soldiers, wizards in forests, murderous children, and philosophical robots.

Each story—or is it simply one long, endlessly mutating story?—is dragged up from the memories and imaginations of the eight performers on the spot. Over the course of the six hours we are gathered together, this prismatic narrative seems to contain every story ever told, though no story is ever completed. As in life, we are perpetually in the process of experiencing the narrative, grasping but never truly able to apprehend its conclusion. Moving from the extraordinary to the banal, we encounter stories of religious ecstasy, fables, ghost tales, love stories, domestic tragedies, and a few raunchy sexcapades.

It is clearly a game, and the audience becomes giddy watching the Kings and Queens play it, competing with one another to hold our attention, interrupting one another and commandeering the narrative, exaggerating certain details or removing key points altogether. The storytelling is at times weary, at other times hysterical, obscene, absurd, tender. At times, some of the Kings and Queens leave their chairs and wander over to the snack table and take a swig of beer, or lie down for a rest in the darkness beyond the chairs while the others carry on. At one point in the night, perhaps around 10 or 11, there are only two Kings left speaking, and then, 20 minutes later, two Queens return, a King leaves, and a half-hour later, without my even noticing it, all eight are back in their chairs. This ebbing and flowing of performers mirrors the ebbing and flowing of the audience in the theater; we are given permission to come and go as needed, to take a break, grab a bite, empty our bladders. The show is six hours long after all. And there is no pretense of what “should” happen in the theater. I feel total permission to laugh out loud, to groan, to rest my eyes when I am bored. It feels as if the audience and the performers are truly in this together.

The show is And on the Thousandth Night… by the seminal Sheffield, UK-based performance company Forced Entertainment. I caught it during its 2010 run at the Hebbel am Ufer performance center in Berlin. The company describes its work as exploring what theater can mean in contemporary life and that this exploration is “always a kind of conversation or negotiation, something that needs to be live.”        

Facebook Instagram Twitter