by Stephen Sachs
She was sitting with friends in the third row of the center section. Good seats close to the aisle. She was enjoying our world premiere of Athol Fugard’s The Painted Rocks at Revolver Creek. An older woman, she liked going to the theatre and had seen many plays over her long span of theatre-going. She also had a history of heart trouble.
Midway through the first act, audience members nearby noticed that she was becoming restless. She leaned forward like she was trying to stand. Suddenly, as the performance continued on stage, she passed out in her seat, unconscious. As the play unfolded, the woman’s friend dashed out of the theatre and alerted the house manager in the lobby. When paramedics arrived, the performance was stopped and the house lights came up. The stage manager stepped forward and made an announcement to the audience. The actors stood motionless on stage and patrons watched in hushed silence as the emergency team entered the auditorium, put the woman on a stretcher and wheeled her out to the waiting ambulance which then sped away into the night. Meanwhile, inside the theatre, the lights went back down. The performance continued. Shaken and dazed, the actors and audience then took on the shared task of rebuilding the imaginary world they both had created and were inhabiting together.
Emergency incidents like this are jarring and upsetting wherever they occur. And they feel strangely at odds and in sudden conflict with the imagined reality in a theatre when they interrupt a play being performed. Like that jolting moment in a movie theater when the projector suddenly breaks and the movie stops. The screen that one moment ago held glorious vistas of outer space or the intimate electricity of a lover’s kiss — without warning goes blank. The lights come up. You are violently thrust back into real life. You look around, disoriented, no longer on a faraway planet or in a seducer’s bed. You’re in a multiplex.
Over our twenty-five year history, the Fountain Theatre has endured a handful of emergency incidents in the audience and on stage during a performance or immediately after. A patron passing out in the front row, an actress collapsing in the middle of a performance, an actor having a heart attack on his drive home. And, of course, the murder of a director in his apartment prior to coming to rehearsal.
Each of these turmoils remind us of the delicate uncertainty of each of our lives and theatre’s seemingly impossible task to express it. Yet that is its aspiration. Then life intervenes.
Conflict is the engine that drives a good play. We go the theatre to witness human beings struggle to overcome a life-or-death conflict. Its one thing to watch a fictional character battle for survival on stage. Quite another to see it happening to the person sitting next to you in the audience. Drama is meant to erupt on stage, not in the auditorium. In plays, we watch bad things happen to good people to learn an important truth about ourselves. But when bad things happen to good people in the audience, perhaps a deeper and harder truth is enacted. One that no play can equal.
Good theatre, theatre that matters, is not an escape or diversion from the reality of life. It is an art form attempting to explore and shed light on human experience. A good play will try to make sense of what often seems senseless, to give meaning to that which feels meaningless, to illuminate the dark.
Hamlet instructs the band of players that the purpose of theatre is to hold a mirror up to nature. But, as these emergency incidents brazenly remind us, theatre is not real life. It is merely a reflection of the reality that stands before all of us. And when real life intervenes in the theatre, the mirror shatters, the spell is momentarily broken. We are shaken awake from the dream we have entered and are reminded of the precarious fragility of life and the “thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.”
Then the lights dim once again. And the performance goes on.
Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.