First Published: May 12 2007

Curious to hear what non theatre goers think of theatre, I asked a tradesman friend what he thought. He furrowed his brow, chewed his lip and replied “Isn’t the theatre where people practice acting before they’re in a movie?”

I think a common misconception is that theatre is the “poor cousin” to film. That people train in theatre (the safe place where no one can see you fail and can’t record your failure)… but the aim is to be in film… and that being in television is a stepping stone to the ultimate: the Hollywood Film. Yes, glorious glossy, red lipped film: with its glitter star doors and directors in cravat and megaphones and its multimillion dollar budgets. Film: With its “film is forever” quality.

Once upon a time, I was so hard-core about the theatre that I refused to see film. (Yes, now I am sounding a little weird) I absolutely would not go the cinema, sighting it was full of nattering teenagers throwing popcorn at each other and snogging each other in between noisy slurps of post-mix coke a cola. I thought that the majority of film was Gwyneth Paltrow being paltry. I thought that film was this rich spoilt brat who didn’t work hard for its audience. I was all about theatre… theatre that emotionally draining, insatiable mistress of the “now”. All about the magic of sitting down and wondering “how did they do that?” and marveling at the actors remembering all their lines… and watching the stories take their unexpected turns. This reaction was based on an assumption that theatre and film fulfill similar functions. That one fulfills that function better than the other does. That one has more intrinsic worth.

One friend of a friend in Canada, relayed an argument about the theatre and film debate he had with a person who was (and I guess still is…) completely devoted to the theatre. The argument went along the lines of “No matter what you do and create there will be a finite number of people you will reach as there is a limited time period and a limited number of seats to fill. Film, on the other hand is for all people… people who are everywhere and all across the world. No matter what you do, you’ll never be as well known as me.” And thus the theatre director looked at the film director and became sad. In fact spiraled into a “what am I doing all this work for if only a few people will see it?”-kind of spiral… a spiral which leads to larger unanswerable questions about your place in the universe that may take years, a gnostic yogi, a mumbling prophet and a lifetime of mung beans to work out.

Well its true.

The film director is right. More people may see his work. But is that the value you put on what you do? What is the point? What is the value?

I think the value is different for different people. And despite the strength of film’s “longevity” over theatre: theatre still exists and has for thousands of years. In fact, I am sure that theatre was invented before film because there may be a bit of an Occupational Health and Safety issue if men in togas had to run around the set making films. Theatre is a much more toga friendly environment.

Theatre is an active medium and as such it is not a safe place. It really needs an audience. A lot is at risk: money, reputation and self esteem. And I guess the same is in film too… except the film actor is not nervously preparing backstage or in the greenroom repeatedly asking the stage manager how many people have booked or in the audience.

Theatre is in the same realm of film because it falls under the umbrella of “entertainment”… but so does a day at the cricket or an afternoon at the zoo… but that does not mean it should be cursed to a life of comparison… and perhaps it should stop being viewed as a quaint antique form of entertainment: a form which was only important coz screens weren’t invented yet. It is and of itself a worthwhile pursuit. And I’ll give you a few reasons why:

1. We are saturated by technology, phones, ipods, internet, computers … and the invention of the blackberry has made us available to be connected (bothered by other people) 24hours a day. Theatre gives us a break from interfacing with screens and others. It allows us to turn off our phones for an hour or two and escape the outside demands: allowing us to search inside ourselves: within.
2. It allows us to connect with new ideas, that aren’t our own. Ideas that may not tickle the fancy o a Hollywood producer with money and celebrities on their hands. It gives us a view of something new. A view of ourselves or other people in an immediate way. A way which we reach out an grab and absorb as fast as we can, so resonates within.
3. It forces us to see the work of the actor. And appreciate that acting is hard… it’s not about models on stage reciting lines, or celebrity. It is about story and character which can’t exist without the actor.

I have a few more reasons… which I may share with you some other time… In the meantime remember: theatre is not the poor cousin of film or the training ground for celebrities. It is an art within itself. And all art is important (even film!) Theatre is to sculpture as paintings are to film… and why don’t we enjoy them all?