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April 09, 2009


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For me "theatricality" is a shorthand for that which can only happen in theatre.

Much like simulacra standing in, by removing (or substituting for) elements of "realism" and "framing" it engages our imagination to connect the dots.

Though often it is translated as weird shit or the impossible stage direction--which seems a cop out to me.

Scott Walters

I think your example of simultaneity in "August: Osage County" is a good one, one that hadn't occurred to me as being particularly theatrical until then. Thanks for adding another piece to my brain.

To me, theatricality means "things that theatre does better than other narrative art forms." So the presence of the actor in the same space at the same time as the audience is theatrical, especially if that fact is acknowledged as part of the play.

I'd also say that visual metaphor is particularly theatrical, both stable and transformational (i.e., when a single prop is transformed into multiple things).

Heightened language usually doesn't work on screen, but seems natural to theatre.


Good points all around. That moment in August is just plain thrilling and definitely something that theatre does well. I think there's also something in the kinds of stories that theatre can do and other mediums can't (and vice versa). Sometimes there are stories that can only be told on stage, happening right before our eyes in real time. Or that are totally different when we see them live. One thing that I really like about plays with ghosts is that it's the highest level of the suspension of disbelief. We can see the person, know that they're alive, know they're interacting with other people, but we have to believe that they're not. On screen, it's just a special effect.


And now for something completely different:



somehow connected to the MAD MEN Twitter combine, until the C&D comes through, interesting enough...


And as for theatricality, it's that generator of the shiver down my spine when I know I'm seeing something that cannot be repeated, because I'm there and the actors are there, in that moment.

WAIT BEFORE DARK on stage has that moment in the climax; on film, I know what will happen because the star is always OK at the end. THE FRONT PAGE, at Lincoln Center back in the day, had Lithgow push Thomas downstage to the apron, as Walter's entrance. Lithgow's characterization was made in that moment, and it held throughout the play.

EURYDICE doesn't have that moment with the stones. In fact the production I saw the director gave their staging to a choreographer, because most of what they do is busy work, waiting for their turn as part of the waters of Lethe. The first strong theatricality came when Eurydice remembered her father; their intimacy made me tear up, and yes, it was designed to. Theatricality is emotionally manipulative, and the heart of the art itself.

I think that's why so many Shakespeare adaptations sink or swim on it. The words give such support to theatrical moments that directors feel pressured to top the script with their own medications on theatricality, as if they've got a free shot at it. That's why so many adaptations are mediocre or painful, because the theatricality ceases to be connected to the play.

Ben TS

Its odd that "theatricality" is synonymous with "weird shit," since theatre certainly has no monopoly on weird shit going down. This might have arisen as the informal definition because at a certain point in the latter-half of the 20th-Century, when every theatre history professor in the country started to criticize realism, "theatrical" started to mean something like, "exuberantly fake." And a Dinosaur emerging from the floor boards and eating a living room set is something I would classify as "exuberantly fake."

I actually find that real theatricality has an element of emotional realism. Something happens that's sort of unexpected and terrifying in how obvious it is that it wasn't really planned. That's why all plays, IMO, benefit from humor. Humor is inherently unexpected.

Paul Rekk

I've always subscribed to the other (?) definition of theatricality -- a sense of providing the obviously false while treating it with a sense of reality. Theatricality to me is a term that implies grandiosity, not necessarily only financially or visually, but in the implied reality as compared to the actual reality.

It's a descriptor, not a definition for me. I don't feel as though theatre is or should be necessarily theatrical. Just like I don't feel all film need be cinematic. It's not a negative or a positive -- simply a choice.

Sarah Ruhl is theatrical. Neil Labute is not.


I just realized I left something out in the above post that was in my notes. I'll just transcribe it:

"Theatre is the realm of imagination; film is the realm of presentation"
-- David Greenspan.


Crap. I just realized that I left a comment here late last night, but didn't do the confirmation thing. Crud.

Nice quote, Isaac. But my lost point still stands:

How is Neil Labute not theatrical? Are any of his plays theatrical? The monologue plays, like Wrecks? How about the direct address, like in This Is How It Goes? (Man, for someone who doesn't even really like Labute, I seem to be pretty familiar with his work. ANYway...) What's the other choice there? When we use the word "theatrical" in that blanket term, not just to describe an element or a particular play, but someone's entire body of work, that's when it starts sounding like a term of value. If one person is "theatrical" and the other is not "theatrical," are they both making theatre? If not, why not?


This will probably sound more glib than intended, but . . . If you hit a golf ball when not on a course are you golfing?

What if you walk a golf course but don't take any clubs?

Would that be the same distinction between "theatrical" and making theatre

Paul Rekk

99, allow me to insert the word 'generally' into that last sentence of mine and introduce the proposal that theatricality is not the product solely of the playwright. You can make anyone more or less theatrical by your treatment of their work as well.

And for me (I repeat, this is how I have defined an already nebulous term for myself), 'theatrical' has nothing to do with whether or not you are making theatre. I used the connotative definition, which can also be applied to other forms of art as well. If I say a film is 'theatrical', does that make it theatre? If I refer to a theatrical work as 'cinematic', does that make it film?

It only becomes value judgment (which was not my intent, my feelings towards Ruhl and Labute are the same: tepid) if you believe that theatricality is a necessarily good or bad thing. I don't think we're discussing a qualitative word here.


Paul, I see your point and the "generally" helps clarify it. I definitely see what Isaac is saying about theatricality being almost more of a production value rather than a writing value. I do agree that it's a murky term that, probably, should be left to the artists to define. In our current theatre culture, though, it is used as value judgment and something put more upon the playwright than the production. Though many directors (Les Waters and Kate Whorisky jump to mind) are tagged as "theatrical" directors.

Tom Loughlin

I agree with Scott! :-) -twl

Scott Walters

I agree with Tom!


could any one tell me if the australian play Ruby Moon by Matt Cameron is theatrical, im not quite sure would it maybe fall into a realism/theatrical catergory -- if there is such a thing?

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