The Disillusion

Dunkirk NY – I ventured out last night – under obligation, I might add – to see a production of Tony Kushner’s The Illusion, a free adaptation of Pierre Corneille’s L’Illusion Comique. On the whole it was a bland production of a play that probably only a certain subsection of theatre people and academics would like. Either a college or a theatre doing a retrospective on Tony Kushner’s work (Signature Theatre 2011) is the only likely venue to produce this piece.

These days, when I have to go to the theatre, I am as much, and sometimes more, interested in the audience as I am in the play. The reason is because I think observing how audiences react to the theatrical event is an indication of how far the theatre has sunk in the estimation of the general public. This audience was particularly interesting, because it was made up of a mix of people 98% of whom I imagine were there, like me, under some obligation.

About 1/3 of the audience consisted of theatre students. Many were from the cast of Pirates of Penzance that I am directing because they had the night off. They were there because, as theatre students, they are under the obligation to see the show for many reasons. They want to support their friends; they can’t really engage socially in the department without having seen the show; they probably feel required to see the show; they may in fact be required to see the show for another class. It is very probable, of course, that if they did not feel these obligations, they would not choose to see this show. I’ve no hard figures, but over the course of 6 performances I would wager a month’s salary that less than 5 students without any connection to the theatre department or its inhabitants on the whole campus went to see the show by choice.

Theatre students always make for bad audiences, and this one was no exception. They reacted not primarily to the story or the quality of the performances, but rather because they felt the need to be supportive. And so they laughed at the appropriate times – perhaps a bit too loudly – and at the end led the requisite standing ovation. They applauded one of their friends after she gave a performance that was long on gags for which she is well-known, and short on depth.

The rest of the audience was composed of people under various other obligations. Some were family members, some were friends/colleagues of the director, some were members of what passes for the cultural mavens of the community. They did not seem to enjoy the play in the way the students did. Few laughed; many seemed bored; many seemed confused, perhaps because they were not privy to the inside nature of the theatre jokes or the social relationships between the student actors and student audiences. It led to a very strange attitudinal split in the audience, one which I am sure was either lost on everybody, or, perhaps more true, subconsciously acknowledged but consciously suppressed.

It is ironic that, in the midst of watching a play entitled The Illusion, I became more disillusioned. The interesting thing about that is that it was not the production that caused the disillusionment, but rather the actual theatrical event as such. The whole enterprise was, in the end, meaningless. The agenda of the community assembled was nothing like what one imagines a theatre assembly to be about. No one there was interested in furthering her or his knowledge of the human condition. The actors did not seem to feel under any obligation to help me understand life’s meaning – or meaninglessness. The audience all had better things to do, but were all obliged to be there, and so that weight of obligation hung in the air like lead.

I wonder if, once I finish my final obligations to the department, I will ever walk into a theatre again.  -twl