Come Into The Fire

An old conversation-starter poses a hypothetical: “If your house was on fire, what would you run in to rescue?”  Generally speaking, family members (children, spouse, parents) are the first to be saved, followed by pets –  naturally.  The interesting conversation derives from the further hypothetical that one knows that all the living members of the household (family, pets) are safe.  So what thing would you run into save?

(The writer will pause for a moment to allow readers to reflect.  The writer realizes that in the Western holiday season, the nuclear family can be explosive, and some readers may be thinking of running into that burning house a little less swiftly than they ought to do.)  (I digress.)

Imagine all “Theatre” as if all that concept contains as one large house.  If the “Theatre” were burning, what would you run into save?  The actors?  Theatre ‘tradition?’ The audience?  The stage manager?  The director’s power in directorial theatre?  The laughs, the tears?  That prop that you worked long hours on to get just right?  The script?  The applause?

I hope some things would get destroyed in that fire.

I hope competitiveness between individual theatre companies would burn away.  This writer has seen companies in various locations around the USA get into terrible fits if “Such and So Company” gets bigger audiences than we do.  Or they get bigger grants than we do.  Or we’re better because our shows are better than theirs – “everyone” says so.  Or we always have better costumes than they do. Or they get to spend more money on sets than we do.  They get more rehearsal time than we do.  And on and on. . . . . . 

This competitiveness seems to harm more than help.  The hallmark of live performance is the spark of the connection between actor and audience. When that spark happens, the light illumines some part of common humanity of the  actors and audience.  If that happens, we should all rejoice – whether it’s Company A doing “Snap-Your-Suspenders Madcap Dinner Theatre Hilarity” or company B doing “The Great Drama of Our Times” or Company X doing  “Mutant Mimes Nude.”  From putting shows on the road, this writer knows that no show can please everybody – actors or audiences.  Some will prefer their theatre bright and musically charged – some dour and  dramatic. And some will rush to see the spring high school play and never think about wanting to step foot into a professional house.  But any time our common humanity is enhanced – that should be a cause of rejoicing for us all.

I hope actors’ mediocre, melodramatic clichéd tricks would burn away.  Actor 1 wants to show being upset with Actor 2.  Actor 1 slaps a hand on the table, half turns away, then turns back and delivers a line with a strained  voice.  The actor wants to hear an off-stage sound and crosses half-way across the stage and inclines an ear and turns back.  The “actor’s cross” – someone (the actor, the director, a stage hand?) feels there needs to be  some movement here, and so the actor walks from nowhere to nowhere for no particular reason.  The easy access to anger as the catch-all “dramatic” emotion.  (How long has it been since this writer has seen sadness or longing on stage – why does it always transfer into anger?)  (And why must the actor shout to show “I’m angry?”)  The readers can play a holiday game by coming up with their own favorites in this category.

I hope directors’ power would burn away.  This writer has heard numbers of actors say, “My job is to give the director what he (and how often is it a ‘he?’) wants.”  Because of economics, there are barrels of small-cast  plays.  Plays with casts of two, three, four, five, or six characters.  A play with two or three characters shouldn’t have problems with actors standing in front of each other.  Our musical brethren seem able to handle duets, trios and quartets without a conductor. What prevents a small group of actors from finding a way to work together without a director?  Or, if there must be a director, let the director’s place at the table be no more privileged than, say, the lighting designer, or the actor who plays the Maid, or the property boy.  “Chaos,” some would say.  Perhaps.  But also the opportunity to find something other than rubber-stamping the  “same-ol’, same-ol’.”

Is there nothing to be saved in the burning “Theatre?”  Many things. But the first thing I would rush into save would be that burst of enthusiasm or energy of a group of people who think, “We’ve got something  here.”  The inexplicable inciting excitement of people who think that this group withthis play can reach this audience.  The bubbling possibilities of even one audience member who comes into the theatre – any theatre – with anticipation that something wonderful will unfold in front of her eyes.  That excitement which hasn’t led to laughs or tears or breathlessness or longing or vibrant stillness, but could lead to a genuine connection between human beings that shows us who we are and what we could be.

In the year ahead, this is my wish.  I wish everyone in this madding and maddening enterprise of live theatre can create the spark that connects us as human beings and burns away all that is false and empty.

Anyone got a match?

©2003 Nathan Thomas

For more commentary and articles by Nathan Thomas, check the Archives.


Nathan Thomas has earned his
living as a touring actor, Artistic Director, director
stage manager, designer, composer, and pianist
He has a Ph.D. in Theatre and is a member of
the theatre faculty of Centenary College


Nathan Thomas

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International Magazine of Theatre, Film & Media

March 2003

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