Drama is a living art. It is written to be performed live before a group of people who form an audience and experience it together, just as you will here at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater. This tradition of performance and observance, of drama as communication, is an historically rich and complex one that reaches far back in time. Textual evidence from Egypt and Mesopotamia—even art like cave paintings depicting men disguised as animals—reveals that since ancient times, impersonation and imitation have been used not only ritualistically but also as a means of expression and communication, a way to impart the knowledge of the community, for example.
The beginnings of Western drama further developed in the religious ritual and festivals of the ancient Greeks, while their theater also took on new emphasis as a sophisticated mode of storytelling, especially as a way of communicating the history of a culture and imagining new heroic tales. The drama of Europe’s Middle Ages was closely tied to forms of religious observance, but the medievals also used theater to teach biblical stories, present the lives of saints, and creatively communicate the moral ideals of the community. It is this long and varied tradition of community engagement and communication through drama that Shakespeare and the Renaissance playwrights inherited—and from which they would both borrow and imagine new possibilities.
Drama not only depicts human communication, it is human communication. But in the theater, unlike television or film, a two-way communication occurs between the actors and their audience. When you experience theatrical storytelling, you are not simply on the receiving end of this communicative process: the audience, as a community, is also a participant. We are quite used to thinking about the actors’ roles in a play, but may find it strange to imagine ourselves, the audience, playing an important role in this living art. Because theater is art that lives, each performance is guaranteed to be different, depending in part upon an audience’s response.
A live performance depends upon its audience. In the theater, the audience hears and sees the actors, and the actors hear and see the audience. When the actors experience a responsive, interested audience, their work is at its best—full of animation and energy. When the actors sense disinterest, they too are distracted, and the play they create is less interesting. One actor described the experience of live performance as a story told by the actors and audience together. In this sense, you are also a storyteller when you experience live theater. We hope you’ll enjoy your role—and will help us to give you a dramatic experience that you’ll always remember.
[Theatrical performance] is essentially a sociable, communal affair. This is important. To resist this is, I think, to ruin one of the very important parts of the theatrical experience. Let the play and let the fact that temporarily you are not your private self, but a member of a closely fused group, make it easy for the performance to ’take you out of yourself.’ This, I suggest, is the object of going to a play… to be taken out of yourself, out of your ordinary life, away from the ordinary world of everyday.
—TYRONE GUTHRIE, 1962