Theater and culture, it’s important

David EideOpinion Columnist

The past couple of weeks have reinvigorated a long dormant love of theater within me, so I’ve decided to devote this week’s column to an exploration of this medium and what it means to me. My renewed fascination began on April 13th, when I was able to attend one of my favorite plays, Hamilton, at the Orpheum due to the school offering tickets that were much cheaper than you could get otherwise. Over the past weekend, my enthusiasm for the stage was cemented when I saw the Guthrie’s staging of Hamlet and found it to be absolutely wonderful and a reminder of just how magical a well-done play can be. To me, theater is one of the most misunderstood cultural products, and I hope to explore why I–and so many others–find it to be absolutely entrancing while also coming to terms with how it has shaped the rest of our culture.

Theater is one of the most ancient forms of cultural expression, with some historians speculating that it originally evolved from elaborate religious rituals wherein practitioners took on the roles of various gods. The first tradition of theater for which we have significant evidence is that of the Greeks, who originated many of the tropes found in Western theater as well as being the literal source of the word theater. Tragically, a vast majority of Greek plays are lost to history. However, the small fraction that we still possess are still powerful enough to regularly receive productions to this day. Theater has continued to evolve throughout the years, from the morality plays of medieval Europe to the masterpieces of Shakespeare in Elizabethan England to the operas of the 18th and 19th centuries up to the present with its wide variety of plays. In effect, you can chart the various social and cultural trends throughout Western history just by taking a quick look at what kinds of plays are most popular, which I think is incredibly interesting to consider. 

I’ve seen a lot of people express a lack of interest in theater, or, at the very least, in theater that isn’t just the most popular Broadway shows. Now, I have nothing against Broadway, in fact, some of my favorite plays of all time are Broadway-style musicals. I just feel that theater as a medium has so much more to offer beyond just big-budget musicals. Some of my favorite plays adopt rather minimalistic sets and have very down-to-earth plots, but I nevertheless find them enrapturing. I think there is something fundamentally immersive about plays that other mediums, like film or video games, must go to great lengths to emulate. In large part, this is due to the physicality of theater. Even if the sets don’t actually provide a great deal of detail or if the characters suddenly drop what they’re doing to break out in song, the events of the play just somehow feel more real, which stems from the actual presence of the actors on the stage. Unlike essentially every other form of media, theater does not have a gap between the production of the work and the audience’s consumption of it because the performance is both. The actors aren’t on a screen or on a page, they’re right there.

The versatility of theater is another aspect of it that I find fascinating. Theater can be performed well in essentially any setting, from a fancy state-of-the-art stage to a simple space outside, as demonstrated by the enduring popularity of Shakespeare in the Park festivals across the world. While fancy visuals and parts of the stage being able to move are very fun, it is ultimately the words of the script and how the actors interpret them that make a play worth seeing. Indeed, Shakespeare’s plays were originally performed with very limited props and stage dressing, but that didn’t stop them from becoming some of the most popular plays ever, which have been constantly reinterpreted and analyzed for centuries. Even when it comes to types of performances that are often joked about, such as high school plays, I have still often found myself engrossed in the drama, just because of the elements that I have discussed thus far. 

In some respects, theater is the most “real” kind of fiction one can consume. In part, this is because theater doesn’t really seek to simulate reality as many other kinds of visual media do, instead relying on the skill of the writers and actors in conveying emotion, which in many ways is more real than the most pristine CGI. With this and the rest of the column in mind, I hope you’ve developed a new appreciation for the art of theater and that you will perhaps go out of your way now to support local performing arts groups and the like.