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The lights dim, signalling a stop to the mindless chatter. All that pierces the sudden hush is the occasional clinking of ice against a glass being raised to someone’s lips. And so the show begins…
Ask any theatre practitioner what draws them to the medium of performance art, and they’ll invariably say the same thing: the thrill of the live event, the magic of the moment, that indefinable energy that sees the actor and the audience feeding off each other.
But while it has always been positioned as a crucial component of every culture for the better part of 2 500 years, the modern generation seems quite content to stand back and watch its demise with the disinterested flutter of a false eyelash.
A recent outing to my old stomping ground – the stage – drove this disheartening state of affairs home. Fingers immediately point to the high cost of theatre tickets, but in an era when a one-time trip to the movies could burn a bigger hole in your pocket, such justifications are more fiction than fact.
So just how did an art form that has always held a dual role as a social commentator (particularly in a country like ours where, thanks to the strict censorship laws, theatre was once the only means of conveying the true message of what was happening under apartheid) start to fall by the wayside?
The advent of television certainly played a part, but its impact was limited at first, since it initially sought to recreate the theatre experience – only now, you could enjoy said experience from the comfort of your couch.
Jump to the 21st century, however, and it’s clear that the kind of material being propagated through this medium (my old gripe – reality programming) is largely to blame for the growing mindless masses, for whom a sentence without the words “like” or “awesome” is deemed too intellectual. Or who vehemently believe a pseudolebrity’s daily beauty treatments and shopping exploits are the stuff of gripping distraction.
As such, how can an elegantly scripted play with a thought-provoking plot which requires – wait for it – actual thought! – possibly hope to compete? Couple that with what’s increasingly become our culture of instant gratification, where scandal, images, music, videos, broadcasts and a star’s latest bowel movements are immediately available at the touch of an iPad screen, a Tweet or YouTube login, and even a short piece of performance art starts to feel like a reading of War and Peace against the backdrop of what’s become this all-pervasive technological world.
With so much information (pertinent or otherwise) being flung at us every minute of every hour of every day, it’s little wonder, then, that we’re fast becoming a society of ADD misfits. After all, it’s no coincidence recent studies suggest the attention span of the average individual is now on par with that of a seven-year-old.
And when have you ever known a seven-year-old to sit through a full theatre performance, particularly one that requires them to stretch their intellect? So while it may seem ludicrous, perhaps the answer to the survival of the performance arts lies in somehow going the digital route. Because while it’s profoundly heartbreaking that it should have to prostitute itself in this way, the thought of a world without the creative magic of theatre is a far more shattering contemplation.
LARA DE MATOS