We open tomorrow night. By the time you read this it will have happened. A new show. A baptismal performance. Until now the script has existed only as ink on paper. Tomorrow night it will be brought alive by actors. The story will be made flesh. That's what live theatre does, what it has always done.
By rights live theatre should be dead. Cinema should have killed it, television butchered its corpse and the internet scattered its bones. But somehow it hangs on because people want it. It fulfils some sort of need. And I for one am delighted, because I love theatres.
Theatres are temples. Like temples they are not dwellings. Like temples they are gathering places. Like temples they are built around a central point. Like temples they have a priesthood and a laity. Like temples they are places of heightened feeling. Like temples they engender atmosphere. And like temples they are haunted.
Everyone who knows theatres knows the ghosts. To step into a theatre where you have worked on shows is to wade through shades. They squat gibbering among the flats and curtains. They roost in the rafters, chuckling and clunking. They are lovely. And their names are the names of old shows.
Before a show the audience mills in the foyer, social, noisy, convivial. But when they enter the auditorium and the raked ranks of seating, a change comes over them. A sense of expectation grows. Every seat faces the stage. Nothing but air comes between the playgoer and the play. Every viewer is both part of a crowd and a solitary spectator.
When the lights go down on the auditorium the audience knows its part. It falls silent. Each person becomes just eyes and ears, mind and heart, becomes a witness to a story being told, being enacted. And a story needs a witness as much as it needs a teller. A story told to an empty room has not been told.
Backstage, meanwhile, as the audience gathers, the performers are still messily themselves, their street selves, noisy and nervous. But in front of lit mirrors they evolve. They don costume, paint faces, become other. And like the unseen audience they grow more serious, quieter.
The point of theatre is the coming together of audience and performers, and the point of nexus is the stage. The stage is the focal point of everything. As the lights go down and silence settles on the crowd, the whole energy of the building and the people in it goes to the stage. All light is directed there, that blank raised central place where the story's told.
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Theatres are as old as our species. Stonehenge was a theatre. It had a central sacrificial stone, an altar, a stage where the action happened, where the light of the sun was focused, where the priests and chiefs and shamans played their part, where the story of birth and death was told. Nobody lived at Stonehenge. The tribe just gathered for the seasonal telling of their most important story in their most important place.
The Greeks told their myths of gods and war in theatres. The Romans built theatres in every outpost of their mighty empire. In medieval Europe they acted out Bible stories at Easter on the back of a cart. And in Elizabethan England there was such a flourishing of the theatre, such a flurry of creation, that we are still performing its shows. And every theatre everywhere is an heir to all of that, even our own little place in Lyttelton.
Our show will run for three weeks and then that will be that. The set will come down. The actors will seek work elsewhere as actors have always done, looking for new skins to inhabit. The director will look for new stories to tell. And this story will shrink back down into ink and paper. It may never be revived. It may sit and wait on a shelf for the call that never comes.
But the show itself, this performance, this once-only version with Tom and Hester acting, Mike directing, will not die. It will shrivel to a memory and whisper its way up into the rafters of the Lyttelton Arts Factory where it will become a presence in the building. Theatre is the telling of stories and the making of ghosts.