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Film is Entertainment; Theater is an Event

July 20, 2008

By Alice T. Carter, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

Jul. 20–At first glance, film and live theater look a lot alike.

Both media assemble a group of people who bring a story to life for others’ entertainment.

But, the fundamental differences between the ways the two media are created and enjoyed affect not only the experience you receive, but the effort you expend.

Film is a forever medium.

You and your 13-year-old daughter can see the same performance of “Showboat” that your grandmother saw as a 13-year-old when the film debuted in 1936.

Moreover, thanks to DVDs, you can even watch it together in her living room. When Paul Robeson sings “Ol Man River,” his performance will be note for note, tone for tone, expression for expression the same as when Grandma first saw it 72 years ago

Multiple theaters and showtimes, the quick transition to DVDs and downloads and endless cable showings make films a come-whenever entertainment. Miss the 1 p.m. showing? There’s another at 3:30.

Got no time this week?

That DVD will sit patiently in its red Netflix envelope atop your TV until you get around to it.

You can even pause it.

Because the movie is eternally available, we don’t need to make the same investment as we do with theater.

But the life span of live theater is short.

When the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera’s production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” has its final performance at 2 p.m. this afternoon, it’s gone forever.

You may see another production of “Smokey Joe’s Cafe” somewhere, sometime. But the cast, costumes, sets and direction likely will be different. Even if you were to assemble those exact same elements, time, experience and human variability would give you performances that would be different.

If nobody shows up to watch a film, there’s little immediate impact to the artists.

The film unreels with the same performances — literally — regardless for how many people are in the theater or if they’re loving it, hating it, or deeply asleep.

By the time a movie gets to your local multiplex, the actors often are two years and four projects removed from the process. Their jobs is done. The checks have been cashed. Their attention is elsewhere.

Reduced to its essentials, film is just shadows flickering on a wall.

But live theater is an interaction between artists and audience.

It’s more than an entertainment.

It’s an event.

We all agree to turn up at the same place and time to experience a journey together.

If the audience doesn’t show up to play their part, the actors may say their lines and go through their movements.

But it’s not really a performance.

In live theater, performances only occur when an audience is watching and engaged.

Your laughter, tears or applause have no effect on the images on the screen.

The actors are elsewhere.

In the theater, they hear and sense your reactions. Those reactions help spur the actors’ intensity and performances.

Yes, it’s possible for an audience to be moved, even deeply moved, by actors on film.

But there’s an emotional bond that ties together actors and audience when they experience emotions together in live theater.

That communal experience may go a long way to explain why when the show’s over film and theater audiences — with rare exceptions — behave very differently.

As the credits role, even before the lights come up, the movie audience begins filing out of the theater.

The show’s over.

We know the actors aren’t really there.

There’s no reason to hang around.

The live theater audience stays to applaud and the actors come back onstage to complete the closure, because we’re all part of a group that has experienced something together.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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