Thursday, January 19, 2012

Willing Suspension of Disbelief

My father was a theatre professor for most of my life. If I learned one thing from him, it is that there is only one thing required from an audience - Willing Suspension of Disbelief. (It is so ingrained in me that I MUST capitalize!) That is the one thing - well, other than a paid ticket - that is required of an audience member when he/she walks into a theatre to be entertained. If they do not possess that, then they might as well have thrown their money into a gutter because they ain't gonna have a good time.

I remember one time Hubby and I went to see the Bruce Willis flick Armageddon. It was just a fun, goofy action movie and I really enjoyed it, but at one point something happened (and I don't remember what it was), and Hubby turned to me and said, "Now that was stupid. I don't believe that would happen." I replied, "Oh, you'd buy the fact that we could send a team to a moving asteroid and blow it up, but you wouldn't buy that this guy would do that particular thing?" And that's when it really hit me. There are Rules to Willing Suspension of Disbelief. People still have to be people. Characters still have to be true to themselves. You can't just throw something in and bank on the audience's WSoD to take over. You have to establish Rules and then stick to them religiously. One broken Rule, however minor, can destroy the movie-watching or theatre-going experience.

Within the context of the Rules, however, it can be "anything goes". Take the Peter Jackson remake of King Kong. I thoroughly enjoyed that movie. Some people didn't like it as much as I did, but I had a great time! (Spoiler alert!!!) In my opinion, there was a critical time during the dinosaur stampede when Jackson solidified the Rules . As I watched the cook running for his life between dinosaur feet but never missing a puff on his ever-present cigarette, I remember making a conscious shift in my attitude. Here was a hard Rule to accept - the guy could run from dinosaurs while puffing on a cigarette AND not freaking out that he's running from dinosaurs - and yet I had to accept it in order to continue to enjoy the movie. For me, the choice was simple. From that point on, I just let go and had a great time. The reason that it was easy to do was that the characters were consistent in their actions and reactions (even the cook) and THEY bought the Rules.

It's a delicate balance! Especially in live theatre when things can (gasp) go wrong! Luckily, audiences for live theatre are more forgiving because of the "live" aspect.

And then . . . there are children.

When I was a freshman in college I was in a children's theatre production of The Emperor's New Clothes. Performing for kids is just a complete trip! Talk about WSoD! They will follow you anywhere you lead them, but they won't let you get away with anything outside of the Rules. It is such a rush!

I played one of the two con artists who fool the Emperor into believing that he's wearing clothes. I am 5'2" tall and Zach, the guy cast as the other con artist, was over a foot taller. Great visual! But Zach was incredibly sick. When I first met him, he weighed almost 300 pounds. When I saw him again, six months later at the auditions for the children's show, he was less than 170. He had anorexia. Halfway through our two week run, he didn't show up for a performance. (We found out the next day that he had been hospitalized for his illness.) It got later and later and finally, about 30 minutes before curtain time, we panicked. DJ, the costumer (a very talented actor who had decided to sit this performance out and just design the costumes), stood by and snickered that he was really glad that he wasn't in the cast having to work this mess out. It all hit us at once that DJ was just about the same size as Zach and could fit into his costumes. DJ hit the door running, but he wasn't fast enough. Several of the other cast members were quicker and drug him back in for make-up.

That performance was one of the most magical theatre experiences that I've ever been a part of. The director came on stage and told the kids that we had a special treat for them. One of the actors was going to be carrying a book with them, but if they (the kids) thought hard enough the magic of the theatre would take over and they would not be able to see the book. The kids thought that was great! And you know, after a few minutes I couldn't see the book. It was amazing. DJ and I got into this rhythm where I would basically say my line and then, if he lost his place, I would say his line and pull him to the area of the stage where we were supposed to wind up. It was a whole new take on the show - one con artist leading the other into mayhem instead of them working together - and it worked. DJ made it work. The kids made it work. The other cast members made it work. And it was wonderful.

After the performance we all lined up in the lobby to meet and greet the kids - like we always did. That afternoon instead of scattering to the wind and going our separate ways after the last kid left, we all stayed in the lobby looking at each other with wide eyes and breathless smiles. We did it! We pulled it off! It worked. No one wanted to go. I know that I wanted to hang on to that feeling for as long as I could. We just all hugged each other and finally wandered to the dressing rooms to take off that world and go back to our own.

I often think about DJ and the "invisible" book when I go see live theatre, or even when I go see a movie. The bottom line is - do the actors see the book that they are asking me to make invisible? The answer to that question determines whether the experience is worth the price of admission.

What about you? Is there a particular movie or play that you saw that tested the Rules for you?

(Update on Zach - he recovered and went on to marry and have a beautiful family.)


gina m said...

This has always been one of my favorite theatre stories - ever since the afternoon that you called me and told me about it. It reinforced in me the magic of theatre.

Cabin77 said...

It was powerful day. It taught me a lot.