We at arslocii have always been of a mind that performance makes a theater and not vice versa. We’ve felt that a stage play didn’t actually even need a stage – that the play was the thing and, if compelling enough, the thing could be played anywhere. We’ve seen plays and musical performances put on in the unlikeliest of spots – out in open fields, in church basements, in living rooms, in marketplaces – and by virtue of the performance, the location has been imbued with that quasi-sacred, holy-ground feel and aura that is a theater. And, even in – and perhaps especially in – latter-day theaters, with their thrust stages and unadorned halls, there is the sense of getting back to basics: stripped down to essences, they are like enclosed Modernist amphitheaters, flexible enough to play host to anything, from Rodgers & Hammerstein to “Godot” to “Oedipus.” They are, or can be, in a very Venturi/Scott Brown way, decorated sheds, but of the soul. And, sometimes, because the performances come out of this dark blank slate, without visual competition, and with a dreamlike presentational affect, they can be even more powerful, have greater impact. A theater need be nothing more than a focal point, a campfire in the night of the world.
And yet …
There we were, going to see a performance of “Burn the Floor,” a spirited ballroom-dancing revue starring some of our favorite hoofers from “So You Think You Can Dance.” The show was being put on in our town’s old orchestra hall, one of those 19th-century jewel boxes that, these days, spend less time with orchestras within their restored walls (our town’s orchestra has moved down the street to the new symphony space) and more time playing host to touring acts and troupes, and smaller-scale arts efforts.
They seem, on the face of them, fuddy-duddy and unnecessary ornate temples dedicated to the white Western world’s conception of culture. That being said, going there, being there, one could clearly feel something … special about it that the newer theaters just don’t have. There was a formal processional entry – from the sidewalk up a few steps to the set-back brick and gaslight-flickered façade; through large doors into a narrow decompression foyer, the first layer of leaving the real world behind; then on into a large, high-ceilinged lobby, with staircases shooting off and up, and, just ahead, ticket-takers for those lucky enough to have floor and lower box seats (and whom, tonight, would include us); then, beyond, a spacious hallway that semi-circles the row of entrance doors leading to the performance area – each ring of ingress drawing us into, even making us complicit with, the make-believe to come.
Then into the theater proper, all red velvet and gold filigree, bedecked tiers forming a wall of opulence, or, perhaps, obeisance: dressing up for a visit from the gods – an audience in both senses of the word. While seemingly stylistic and interior-decorating overkill for the task at hand (except where acoustical functionality was the driving force), there is, deeper, a sense of placeness that enunciates clearly that this is exactly what a space of this sort should be – in the same way that circus is best seen in a tent, or baseball in a human-scale stadium with grass on the field. And when the curtain rises – and, yes, there is a curtain, not merely a bank of lights turned on, as well as a massive proscenium that is happy to provide a fourth wall – we know that this is a place of art and wonder and imaginativeness.
Some places can be anything, and many new theaters are like that; other places are one thing, but perfectly so. Each has its role, and its magic, and even its contrapuntal possibilities: a full-costumed opera on a bare thrust stage, a Beckett play in a Victorian- or Edwardian-era hall – playing against type, and placeness, creating a new place with hybrid life.
There is not just one way of doing things, but there are ways that we, as participant-observers, know are just right, and tell us that we belong. Maybe anything called a theater does that. Maybe anything – whether black box or jewel box – that draws us to it, and draws our minds and hearts for us to see, has a placeness supreme.