Monday, May 30, 2016

Jurassic Park vs Sophocles

New York City is a theater town and has been for over a hundred years. If I think back, I can remember every single live performance I have ever seen. Wondering if theater was really as potent an experience for others as it had always been for me, I conducted a small experiment with my son. (He was part offspring, part science experiment.) He was just six years old, and having grown up in LA, he was a child of the movies. 

The penultimate movie of his and every other little boy's life at that time was Jurassic Park. It had real dinosaurs racing around killing other real dinosaurs and people. I do not exaggerate when I say that at the local park on any given day, every boy was consumed with acting out his own version of 'The Raptor', and they all had sound effects. (Incidentally, all boys love making sound effects. Girls may, too, but I didn't have a girl so can't say.) Each boy had captured some vital characteristic of the monstrous raptor and was menacing one and all. What was amazing, was that all the interpretations were quite unique, and yet there was no mistaking them for anything but a Jurassic Park raptor.

But, our son had never been to a live theater performance. Those are hard to come by in Los Angeles. With an actor for a dad, who had done lots of live theater, and a mom who was a theater devotee, I was very curious to see how the kid would respond to real theater as opposed to movies. The only thing I could come up with was a performance of 'Oliver Twist' the musical at his school. I thought it would be a good introduction, since he'd be part of an audience of mostly children. 

The son type person consented to attend, but only under protest. He thought the whole thing sounded stupid. But, at last the big day came. From the first moment, I knew I had made a terrible mistake. The theater was a messy classroom with a small stage on one side. The piano was onstage with the cast. The best that could be said of it was that the children playing the parts of Oliver and the others in Fagin's gang were lively and trying hard, but getting no help at all. I cringed as I suffered through the first act, feeling that my experiment had gone very wrong, and vowing to make no fuss at intermission when my son was disgusted and insisted on leaving.

It was a horrible production; not just amateurish, but haphazard, with no thought given to anything theatrical, like costumes, scenery, staging, curtain, or acting. They had made no effort at all to help the imagination along in suspending reality and drawing the audience into the story. It was also an abbreviated version, with only a few of the songs. That was forgivable, because none of the kids were professionals. The two or three songs they'd included were nicely done.

Released from audience bondage by the intermission, we headed out for some lemonade. My disappointment was so great, I was simply waiting for my son to demand to go home. Instead, he turned to me, his face shining with enthusiasm, "Mom," he exclaimed, "it's better than Jurassic Park." 

Staggered, thunderstruck, astonished! I was completely stunned and will never forget those words. Even if he'd seen a fabulous Broadway production with all the bells and whistles, I would never have expected it to be in any way comparable to Jurassic Park. Such was the impact of live theater on his young sensibility that even a poor production was felt by a six year old to be better than the number one movie of his entire life. Astonishing. Beyond even my wildest hopes. Actually beyond my understanding. I learned much more from his reaction than I had expected to learn.

The experiment proved one thing for absolute certain: live theater, even poorly done, has a power that should never be underestimated. It's almost as if we are programmed to respond to theater in a uniquely profound way. I mean better than Jurassic Park? The movie that spawned a million boy raptor's? 

The Greeks who invented theater were really onto something big and powerful. In those distant millennia, fraught with conflict, superstition, and war, they recognized theater as a force for molding the will and understanding of humanity. If we remember Aeschylus's Oresteia, or Sophocles Oedipus, tragedies that move the human spirit from the self destructive vanity of vendetta, vengeance, and inter familial murder to the validation of faith in the superiority of the Goddess Athena's justice, we can begin to understand how five hundred years before the birth of Christ, theater helped men take the first halting steps toward western, humanist civilization. Just gives me chills to think of it. But, theater always does that to me. And I guess I'm hardly alone in that experience. 

There is something visceral about being in the audience of a live theater performance. Theater is more than the sum of its parts. It's got plot, action, acting, sometimes music, story, moral, and theme,which combine to reveal many things to the intellect. But when you sit there in the dark and witness real live people acting out a play, the experience circumvents your normal channels of discrimination. You are moved in a deeper way than almost anything else can accomplish. Theater began as a sacred, religious rite. It still carries that power because theatrical performances speak to your deepest spiritual self.


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