Getting back to basics about the nature of theatre for a moment, let’s look at theatre, books and film and do a little compare and contrast about the process of being an audience for them.
When you watch a film, you watch a set, finished work of art. You experience all of it at once, but you have the option of re-experiencing it fairly cheaply. If you do so, the work of art you see will remain identical, but your experience of it might change.
When you read a book, you are experiencing a set, finished work of art. Your interaction with it is very different. You generally read it over a long period of time instead of in one sitting (although if you’ve never known the pleasure of reading a novel in one sitting, it’s a pretty amazing experience). You can move backward or forward whenever you want. You can skip a section, you can refresh your memory by going to a previous chapter etc. Also, unless it’s a comic, there are no images, your brain creates it as you read it (or doesn’t, if imagination ain’t your bag).
Theatre, on the other hand, you experience once. It is not rewindable, and you can’t flip back. You can’t reexperience it as it will be slightly different the next time you see it, and tickets are in general cost prohibitive. You have one shot as an audience member, and that’s it.
Do you think about this as theatre artists when making your work? I know I do, I think about it as a reader of plays, I think about it as an audience member, I think about it as a director constantly. Thinking this way can be very conservatising. It can lead you to conclude “well, if they aren’t going to `get it’ on the first try, we should ditch it” which I think leads to a certain overreliance on “clarity” as an artistic virtue in and of itself, particularly in new play development.
Speaking just for myself, it’s more about figuring out which things I’m okay with the audience not-getting, remaining a quasi-mysterious source of depth and nuance to the experience, and which things must come across. In general, story falls into the latter category, and some thematic stuff with regard to design falls into the former, for example. I love it when sets are thematically integrated into productions, I find it problematic when they announce the themes of a show for the audience.