What can we gain from the stage that we can’t get from watching a screen?
My Netflix queue is full of stories vying for my attention (it’s currently recommending “Witty period dramas with a strong British female lead,” which seems oddly specific). With so many choices in front of me, why leave my screen for a theatre? While I love both, the stage is its own medium. And it provides a unique experience that you can’t get from anything you see on the screen.
1. Stages ask for a different sort of attention than screens do.
Screens are entirely at our disposal: We can turn them on or tune them out. Streaming services give us the chance to engage with an endless number of stories, but those stories can also become background noise to whatever else we’re doing. Pull up Netflix, and before you know it, five episodes of Parks and Recreation have played while you’ve cleaned the kitchen or “worked” on a paper. Consuming stories with such control means that we have the luxury of choosing which characters and narratives we want to engage with or avoid.
Stages demand our attention and forcefully immerse us in a story. You can’t multitask during a play in the way you can when you watch TV (or else you’d have some rather upset theatergoers to contend with). You have to enter into whatever world is being created before you.
2. The stage engages the imagination differently.
Screens create fully-realized worlds, worlds in which the details have been entirely filled in for us. Every frame we see has been controlled and manipulated, from the pacing of the camera to the very colors we see, which means the viewers don’t have to do as much imaginative work. The filmmakers have done all of that for us, and now our task is to observe their world.
But stages ask us to do more than observe. Even the most intricate of theatrical sets does not have the ability to create the same kind of heavily detailed world that a film can; furthermore, it’s not trying to. Rather, stages suggest worlds and ask both the actors and the audience to imaginatively fill in the blanks.
I recently saw a production of King Lear, a play containing nearly 20 characters, performed by a cast of five. The change of a jacket or a scarf was the primary way the actors differentiated between the multiple characters they played, and you just had to go with it. The people on stage in front of me so clearly believed in the moments they were making, that as long as the audience was willing to embrace their created reality, it didn’t matter that they were obviously just five people putting on different hats. If we allow ourselves to accept the world the play is suggesting, then we become an active member in the storytelling process by imagining this new world alongside both the actors and our fellow audience members. Imagination becomes a communal act.
3. The stage creates a unique space for empathy.
This combination of immersion and imagination creates an environment in which an audience member is able to empathize more deeply with another human being — one who is living and breathing only a few feet away.
You can turn off a screen if the story strikes a nerve, but you can’t shut down a person on stage who’s unburdening themselves before you. A few months ago, I had the chance to see Ralph Fiennes at the Old Vic in The Master Builder. In the second act, his character told the story of how his young children had died in an accident. As I watched this man recount the most painful part of his life, I was fully engrossed, not realizing that tears were rolling down my face until one splashed onto my hands clasped in my lap. I couldn’t look away from him and didn’t want to; by choosing to participate in his world, I was able to enter into his struggle in a way that transcended any of my preconceived ideas.
Screens have their own gifts to give us, but the theatre – often unappreciated and undervalued – provides a different kind of space that deeply engages our imaginations and increases our capacity for empathy. If we can laugh and weep with the actor telling the story of someone’s life, perhaps we will be better prepared to laugh and weep with the real people in our own lives. If entering into the world of the stage can make us more empathetic people, then perhaps we ought to visit the theatre a little more often.
Elena Trueba is a curriculum developer and teacher who focuses on helping high school students read, write, and engage with the stories that shape their lives. She is a graduate of Excelsior College, a former visiting student in Theology at Oxford University, and a great lover of strong coffee.
This article is part of an August series on theatre, hosted by the Play and Create channels at Humane Pursuits. Read more here.