The local playwright Rosanna Staffa once, while describing to me the difference between plays she liked and plays she didn't like, came up with a metaphor that is so perfect, I repeat it all the time. I also repeat it and realize that a good number of people don't understand it. Still, I feel it is one of those perfect little metaphors that says something through comparison that can't be said well literally, so I insist on using it still. I kind of feel that you either get it or you don't.
Here goes: A lot of plays, she said, especially a lot of the plays she sees in New York (she noted with some degree of acidity) are written in the third person, but the real good plays, the one she likes, are written in the first person.
I took this to mean—I repeat it because—I think that by third person she means distant, with a screen between the audience and the production, a show that – even if it is never explicit about it – tells the audience what to think of these characters and these themes and this story, almost as though holding a sign above the stage, or—as in third person narrative in novels—creating a sense that there is an omniscient presence overseeing, controlling and probably judging these proceedings. At the very least, trying to get the audience to "think" something specific.
By first person, I know she didn't mean that the story is autobiographical or there is a narrator on stage that uses the word "I" a lot. I think she meant that everyone involved in the production is working from the inside of the story, seeing the characters as themselves first and the story as their own first, and telling the story from a limited and flawed and compassionate place with all the world's limitations in place and no judgment, a story-telling style that is more true to most people's actual experience of their own lives. One that embraces humanity and all its flaws and doesn't insist on "saying" something to the audience. (My least favorite question as a playwright: "What are you trying to say with this play?" The answer I should give: "When I want to say something, I write essays. When I write plays, I want people to experience something, preferably something that can't be described so easily in words.")
I have an obvious bias towards this type of theatrical "first-person" storytelling, but I feel as though I see "third-person" on stage all the time, whether it be a gigantic spectacle of a Broadway musical or even a small, political drama that wants so desperately to make a statement about right and wrong in the world; whether it be a restaging of a classic or a quirky, witty new comedy about the foibles of small town life. It's hard to tell what makes the difference in tone, but you know it when you see it.
Sometimes, I think all my criticism of all different kinds of theater simply comes down to this difference. I'll love a musical, or a drama, or a populist comedy, or a piece of experimental performance art, as long as I believe that it's told from the "first person" rather than the "third person," that the creators are telling the story as members of humanity, of their community, as real people, rather than simply as very talented observers of people, life, and the human condition.
And, now that I think about it, I think I do know what the difference is—compassion. Do you make work in the theater with compassion or do you make work in the theater because you're angry? Do you make work in the theater because you love people or do you make work in the theater because you want to change people? (I think you can be compassionate and still be angry and want people to change, but which impulse is dominant matters a lot.) Do you love the world you live in and all the people and all their flaws, or do you kind of hate them, or judge them, or feel distant from them?
Circle Mirror Transformation is a deeply compassionate play. And the production in the Dowling Studio is performed, directed, and designed with great care and love.
I'm very sorry that just sounded like a review thesis. I really don't mean to write reviews in this space—what I want to say in this space is what I actually did say to people afterwards last night:
The play I saw was lovely and delightful in a genuinely lovely and delightful way—rather than lovely in a "wasn't that supposed to be a beautiful approximation of what people would call lovely if they had to put words to it" or delightful in that "the writer really knows how to be witty and clever in a way that should be described as delightful if you hadn't ever felt real bouncing-ball-ticklish-brain-childlike-innocent delight."
And it made me think that with all the talk about what theater can do different than movies and television, perhaps compassion—this feeling of reaching out from person to person in an open, honest, and trusting way—is it. Not big spectacle, or political commentary, or even intellectual debate. Though all these things can and should be done on stage, they are not inherently theatrical.
Perhaps what is inherently theatrical is simply our ability to be compassionate, live. Because, few things can be as powerful as the the compassion you feel for another person in front of you. You can feel sad and want to do something about a tragedy somewhere else in the world, certainly. And you can make a compassionate act to help resolve that problem, like giving money to charity, but it's hard to feel compassion from a distance. You can feel the incredible power of compassion most, I think, only while in a room with other people.
Let me put this another way: In the author's note in the script, Annie Baker writes, "I am very attached to these characters, and I hope that you will portray them with compassion. They are not fools. They are noble everyday people who took this class because they wanted to add a little meaning to their lives."
Things I believe: If that approach to a play surprised you at all, that she treats her characters with kindness and wants them portrayed with dignity rather than mocked by the director and/or the actors and/or the audience, then I really do wish you would stop doing theater.
At the very least stop inviting me to your shows. If you don't really like people, even the least among us, if you don't think that their wants, desires, mistakes, limitations are a part of their inherent dignity as humans but instead are flaws that we need to highlight onstage so that everyone knows the difference between the bad people and the good people, please stay away from me. Or, if you do theater because you like to make cool lighting effects or like it when people applaud for you, or think you're smarter than everyone and they all should listen to you, don't bother with me. I'm actually serious. I just won't ever want to see your work no matter how talented you are and how well you execute it.
One of the things I liked most about Circle Mirror Transformation is that when done as Baker asked, it also treats the audience in the same compassionate way. Not as fools but as noble people who came to the theater to add a little meaning in their lives.
Am I really off the mark to say that, in the theater, we often don't have that kind of respect for our audience?
I think Circle Mirror Transformation has got a big heart at the center of it, and Annie Baker writes in the "first person" in a way that makes us all feel like the first person.
It seemed to me that, in the sold-out audience that I saw the show with on Saturday night, that made a very big difference to everyone in the rooma room that we all felt as though we were invited inside rather than asked to look at from a distance.