One of my favorite things about theatre is that, when in it, you are free to create worlds that don’t have to abide by the rules of reality. In the last several weeks I have spent many an hour sifting though The Fountain’s archives. Looking through old playbills feels strangely akin to walking though the Museum of Natural History— each one is like a peek at the remnants of a different world. Every play has its own texture, its own rhythm, its own particular flavor.
Last semester, I took an amazing architecture class that felt more like a philosophy lecture. In it we delved into the true meaning of Utopia. Thomas More wrote a book in the early 1500s about the fictional island of Utopia, the home of a society whose religious, social and political customs were harmonious. More fashioned the name of his island from the Greek ou (‘not’) and topos (‘place’). By its very appellation, a Utopia cannot exist in the real world. It cannot be created or completely realized within reality; it is a non place. The purpose of a Utopia is to be a platform from which we may view and critique our own world.
I believe theatre to be a type of Utopia. When a set designer and a lighting designer and a writer come together, they do not just create a story, they fashion a world. As soon as you step into a theatre, time no longer abides by worldly conventions. Sunlight can become rose or pale purple, shining ethereally from a fresnel light. The ocean can seep from the corners of a deep blue blanket. A leopard can sing a child a lullaby. An entire universe is contained within a play.
When an audience goes to see a play, we spend and hour or two in a different world. Yet, after the actors take their last bow and the house lights flick on, that world dissolves into a Non Place, and you find yourself back in the reality you had left behind. Theatre is the ultimate Utopia. We do not live in West Side Story‘s New York or the Paris of Les Miz. We can’t break into song whenever we feel like it. Nor can we be so raw as we are on stage, we cannot bear our soul on a day-to-day basis. No one wants to break down every time they buy a smoothie at Whole Foods, or fall passionately and dangerously in love with the person behind the desk at the DMV. Human emotion in its rawest form, stripped of its binding of everyday convention, is powerful but ever so delicate.
We need the armor we carry every day to protect us. But if we can take it off for an hour or two at the theatre, it seems a little lighter when we have to put it back on.
Our current production, Citizen: An American Lyric, is about race in America. Like all good theatre, once audiences and actors are in the world of Citizen, different rules apply. We can talk about problems that go unnoticed or unaddressed. We can use words we would never say. We can look directly at issues under the forgiving light of a fresnel that would hurt our eyes in the harsh light of our unforgiving sun.
After we applaud Citizen and exit The Fountain’s cozy walls, we go back to our world. It is no longer safe. But we carry a little bit of that truth with us, that thing we just glimpsed. We do not live in the Utopia of the theatre, but we have stood on that placeless island for an hour or two and looked from a distance at our little moving planet, our flawed country, our damaged city, our fissured neighborhoods, our dysfunctional homes, our imperfect selves … and we have gotten to know them a little better. The world might be the same as when we entered the theatre and hour and a half earlier, but we are not.
Isabel Espy is the Fountain Theatre’s summer intern from UCLA. We are grateful for the support of the Los Angeles County Arts Commission and its Arts Internship program.