Wednesday, September 19, 2007

Theatre as Memory

Recently I was told of a lead in a musical who snubbed the young fans waiting for him after the show. The person telling this story was deeply outraged, claiming she'd be so grateful to be in that position she'd do anything they asked of her.

Now, I think there's a definite danger of being used by a large production company who plays on your desperation and gratitude, and I hope she never finds herself in that position. Yet I can't disagree with her main point. Blowing off fans at stage door isn't cool.

Which led me to wonder - why do I think like that? After all, our responsibility as artists is to the work. We can't control how an audience is going to react. And there is certainly an epidemic of encroachment into the private lives of actors. (A friend of mine who was a lead in a very popular TV movie has told me tales that are shocking.) In the end, the actor is performing a role, a role that ends when the performance is over.

So why do I have a problem with what that actor did?

I've determined that for me, it comes down to theatre existing as memory. Unlike other media, our work only lives on in the memory of those who were there. So what we really do is make memories.

Why do we make art? My answer is to touch lives through a transcendent experience. That experience for the audience is not just the performance itself, but the environment immediately before and after. And one of the common threads of humanity is the need to be acknowledged and treated with respect. This is why it is so important to take care of our audience's needs as much as we can. One could have the most amazing experience of the performance only to have it tainted by a perceived experience of disrespect. Sadly, most of us remember the negative over the positive.

Theatre, in the end, is a communal experience. And that means honouring all responses. And if the response is wanting to meet an actor who's work has touched you, enough that you'll make the effort to stand by a stage door, then I feel that respect needs to be paid.

It takes guts to hang out at a stage door waiting to meet a stranger. I believe we need to support this courage. IMO, the biggest failing we have as a society is that we discourage risk. Too many people sit on the sidelines, unwilling or afraid to go after what they want. Yet it's the risk-takers that create value in society. As artists, our lives are all about taking risks and I believe our biggest contribution to society is to serve as an example to others, to inspire them to do the same. This is how we better our world.

On a slightly more prosaic note, I don't know of any artist who doesn't have a story about meeting an artist in their formative years that inspired them. That person waiting at the stage door could be a great artist of their generation if they get the encouragement. We have a responsibility to develop and nurture the next generation of artists to ensure the future of our art. And it could just be a few kind words at stage door that does it.

On an even more prosaic note, it's a good career move. Almost everyone who has been in the business a long time makes a point of meeting the fans. They know that people remember the personal touch, the feeling of brief connection, and that will turn their casual support into following and supporting their future work. It's that future support that helps prolong a career.

All of which ties back to theatre as memory, and the importance of creating good memories. It's a responsibility I feel we all have to our audiences. And in the end, it's a few moments out of our time that creates so much positive, creative energy. So why not do it?

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