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By Jake Christensen
It happened again last week. One of my theater friends on Facebook boastfully compared his profession to 3D moviemaking. The sales pitch goes something like this: "Live theater has been doing 3D for centuries!" I've read and heard several theater folk make similar quips. The first couple of times, I chuckled. Now I groan.
Perhaps because the 3D comparison is so self-congratulatory, it is starting to feel as belabored as all those "Got ****?" slogans. Also, comparing live theater to 3D amounts to false advertising. Theater is three-dimensional, but it is not "3D."
Recently I attended opening night of "On Golden Pond" at the Purple Rose Theatre Company. The play was beautiful. What is more, the production offered wonderful set, props, lighting and sound designs. Yet here are some things PRTC's "On Golden Pond" did not offer the audience that 3D would have:
(1) A pond – especially the optical illusion of swimming through it or boating o'er it.
(2) Action sequences involving fishing – complete with a character casting off and sending a lure hurtling toward my nose.
(3) Loons (real or CGI) – big, beautiful, and not so subtle metaphors for monogamy, soaring so close that I hold up my popcorn bucket as a shield.
I'm only using PRTC as an example. They do not bill "On Golden Pond" as 3D entertainment in any publicity I've seen. But if they had, I could have walked up to the director after the show and rightfully said, "Nice play, but the 3D was weak. I think your actors only broke the fourth wall once."
There's the crux. Most theater takes place behind a fourth wall that is functionally as absolute as a movie screen. The demarcation, far from being a mere safety consideration, has a sacred element to it. Being a big guy, I have a couple of times inadvertently drawn eye contact from actors during shows. In both occurrences (one on Broadway), the actor quickly broke the gaze. Speaking for myself, it felt wrong.
Film has a similar taboo called "spiking the camera," and even 3D movies avoid it. Whether on film or stage, the fourth wall is a critical and appropriate barrier. It is also a fulcrum point for the tenuous balance between dramatic truth and suspension of disbelief. 3D movies merely try to trick your brain into thinking there is no wall — a bit of disingenuousness that serves as another reason to avoid theater/3D comparisons.
Let's also be frank about economics. 3D movies may have jacked-up ticket pricing by cinema standards, but they're still cheaper than Equity theater (while also employing union talent). Nevertheless theater need not, and ought not, market by comparing itself to a medium that is far from universally loved by artists or audiences. Heretofore, 3D's only consistent contribution to storytelling is enhanced spectacle.
Theater is cool and sexy all on its own, sometimes in spite of visual effects it attempts. By virtue of being "live" it is more alive than any 3D movie. So for theater professionals who want to avoid the looming specter of disappointed audiences, the task remains the same both in performance and marketing: Don't call your art something it is not. Keep it relevant and engaging.
Keep it real.
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ABOUT JAKE CHRISTENSEN:
Jake Christensen is a writer and Equity actor. In addition to appearances at the Purple Rose Theatre Company and the Blackbird Theatre, he performed with University of Michigan's CRLT Players for over two years. His playwriting has received public readings and full performance at BoxFest Detroit, Performance Network Theatre and PRTC. He received a Bachelor of Science in English from Weber State University and was a national finalist in the Critic's Competition of the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival.
ABOUT THE 'IN MY HUMBLE OPINION' SERIES:
After a long absence, the "In My Humble Opinion" series returns to rekindle a discussion of the performing arts between theater professionals and theater goers (and everyone in between). Submissions will be considered by anyone who would like to share their industry-related thoughts and experiences. Those wishing to contribute to this series should contact the editor at firstname.lastname@example.org for details.