This series of essays originally appeared in theatre programs for the 1998-99 season of Theatre & Company, Kitchener, Ontario, where author Stuart Scadron-Wattles was the producing artistic director.
T&Co was in many ways a sister company to PT. I was very struck by these ideas at the time, and they've been on my mind again recently. Stuart's given me permission to reproduce them here. This is the third.
Five Short Essays on Necessary Theatre:
by Stuart Scadron-Wattles
“Where is the theatre?” I recently asked that question in a high school directing class and at least one student understood correctly that I meant “where does the theatre take place?” Some think the theatre takes place on the stage, others in the audience. At Theatre & Company, we believe that the theatre requires both, but actually takes place in a third space, a space we term the liminal space.
Liminal means “at the threshold,” and that is why we use it. Both audience and theatre artists are at the doorway to one another’s worlds. The act of performance takes place on one side, that of witness on the other. When the two sets of human imaginations are working together, the theatre has been entered. This is the space between two worlds. It is admittedly, a thin space, which is why we call it “liminal.”
Children understand this liminal space better than adults. They enter it more quickly because their personalities have yet to contain the many social imperatives that make us into adults. We love including children in our audiences because they enter that space more quickly, and can often take the adults with them.
In this liminal space, we are better connected with our unconscious thoughts and with the substance of story than we could be in our daily lives. In this world, metaphor is allowed to flower. Sometimes the flower is even allowed to go to seed. And sometimes that seed falls into the softer ground of our unconscious lives.
This meeting of the imaginations occurs in other art forms, of course, but the obvious difference in the operation of the liminal world in live performance is the key to its fascination: the world on the other side of the audience is constantly shifting, responding to our responses; it is literally alive.
On stage, the performers are affected by how the audience imagines the proposed world of the stage, and its shape changes accordingly. How you imagine that world is also shaped by the friends and strangers who have gathered with you for the experience. The audience’s enthusiasm for a particular aspect of the world we are creating together will likely cause the performers to deepen or expand that aspect. An audience which is having difficulty apprehending a part of that world may find its performers moving more tentatively or explicitly on that ground.
The liminal world exists only because the theatre artists and audience have achieved some sort of tacit understanding about this new space. However well the theatre artists set up the paradigm, the audience is free to ignore it. You may find an intentionally serious moment funny and vice-versa. And we have to proceed from there. As do you. The liminal world is permissive and participative.
In a good piece of theatre, anything can happen. This is what makes live theatre alive: the powerful potential of human presence.