Over the past few weeks, I have been reading The Necessity of Theater by Paul Woodruff. An excellent philosophical text, it challenged me to rethink what I define as theater, and what I define as good theater. Among other wonderful points, Woodruff asserts that theatre - the experience of watching and being watched - develops empathy. As watchers of good theatre, we are drawn to stories of characters that engage our emotion. This is not limited to “good” characters as opposed to “evil.” The capacity to pay attention to others for their own sake, is the basis of good ethics. This, he concludes, is what makes theatre necessary in our world. We practice the capacity to pay attention to others for their own sake, or more simply, to care about others. “When truth is spoken in theater, theater can show us what it is like to be the person who believes this truth.”
I am an avid reader of texts about theatre, acting, and performance technique, and a reader of plays. In The Necessity of Theater, Woodruff reminds me that reading a script, a “literary study”, is not the same as seeing a production. It is a valuable experience, but a very solitary one. In a similar way, the primary difference between theatre and film or television is the exchange of energy between actors and audience. The words on the page are stagnant, the carefully designed point of view of the film never changes. A script may be printed and notated, but for any given performance, the community of actors and audience members gathered in that place and in that moment of time is unique. The performance is ephemeral and is a unique yet shared experience. From this comes the value, the necessity of theater.
I am a theatre artist who believes in the importance of training, of practice. How can I “train” the capacity for empathy, for caring for others? How can I practice the crucial capacity for understanding and connection, and therefore for community? One of my goals for this year is to see good work more often, and thereby to develop the skills of being a good watcher, an active and engaged audience member. I believe that this will make me a better artist, and a better human being.
~ Carey Cahoon