When should a play be aware of the fact that it is just a play, and when should it be unaware, allowing the characters and the audience to be carried away together to another world?
In most traditional plays, a story is crafted with a beginning middle and end and simply played out in front of an audience. The characters themselves are not aware that they are in front of an audience; they live out their story while audience peers in on them. That fourth wall, or invisible curtain between the stage and the audience, is never broken. The characters live in their world, and we live in ours. As an audience member, we understand that our role is to watch silently from our cushioned seats and clap our hands together when the scene is over. The actors understand they are performing set dialogue to set actions for the sake of the audience; they work to bridge the gap between the world of the characters and the world of the audience.
I’ve begun to see many more shows that break away from this model. Instead, they opt for a more “aware” production. These plays are softly winking to the audience; they remind the viewer that this is indeed “just a play” and they are indeed “just characters.” These plays tend to tear down the fourth wall from the start, blurring the line drawn between the imagined world and the real world. They seek to be in more direct communication with the viewer.
The particular version of A Doll’s House as produced by Torrey Theatre was very aware of itself. It used this style to emphasize the social implications of the story. The characters represent many archetypes of Victorian society in Copenhagen during 1879 when the show was published. These characters live and breath their respective ideologies, and while this creates very unrealistic people, it is very effective for communicating an opinion of that ideology. Each player was aware of the ideal their character needs to communicate and worked hard to draw that out in all implicit and explicit acting choices. Their was little room for second guessing on who believed what, and so the audience was left to the task of weighing the consequences (good and bad) of each of these ideals.
Before the show, the directors invited the audience to audibly react to the action of the play. The sighs, shouts, and snickers from the house showed how important audience engagement is to great theatre. The audience was able to show disgust, love, hatred, despair, and a whole host of other emotions throughout the production. The cast was able to move with these reactions, responding to what the audience was giving. Now, it was not just the play making some social commentary, but the audience too. We had been directly invited into the conversation; we could let the actors and our fellow audience members know what we thought of each idea that was played before us.
A play that knows it is “just a play”allows the audience and the actors to enter into a conversation. Theatre does an excellent job as entertainer, but I think its more important role is facilitator. When I am confronted with new ideas, it is a great privilege to wrestle with them from within a theatre. I can see some of the consequences and benefits of these ideas played out before me. And on top of that, I can react in real time to these scenes. I can laugh, cry, gasp, sigh, and moan. Why? Because this is “just a play,” and I have been invited to participate in the action.
Do you like a play that shows self awareness, or would you rather be swept away into another world? Let me know what you think in the comments.