“Live Theater”: As Opposed to What, Dead Theater?

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The Broadway League release arrived with the headline:

Empire State Theatre Production Tax Credit Approved

New York is Now the Fourth State to Offer Tax Benefits
for Investing in Live Theatre

The good news has already been reported elsewhere, and I’m not writing about it now because I have any reason for objecting to a government initiative that increases theater-related business in the state where the nation’s theater hub is situated. I see nothing wrong and everything right in a condition that retrieves theater-related business that had been lost to other states where tax credit has previously been established.

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Biltmore Theater - Sally
A crowd pours in to Los Angeles’ Biltmore Theater in 1924, when “live theater” was cool. / via

Who would?

No, what caught my eye is the phrase at the end of the headline: “Live Theatre.”

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It’s not the first time I’d read it or heard it. By 2014 I’ve heard it so many times that I can’t remember when I first heard it. On the other hand, I don’t think I’d ever heard it before the early ‘90s or, at the earliest, the mid-‘80s.

I do know that whenever I first heard it—as well as every time since—it’s been an assault on my ears. Why? The answer should be obvious: It’s absolutely meaningless. What else is theater, if not live? Unless linked with “movie,” as in “movie theater,” indicating a building where films are screened, or as in “theater of war,” part of the definition of theater is that it’s live.  It’s not the same as the term “live television,” which means an event broadcast as it’s occurring, as opposed to events previously recorded.

The point is that there’s absolutely no call for theater to be designated as “live.” Yet increasingly, people go around referring to “live theater.” And not just your average Joe and Joan. The usage is now so commonplace that The Broadway League succumbs to employing it in a headline. It’s utterly likely that whoever wrote the headline didn’t even think there was anything odd about the term.

I do. Whenever I hear it, I think it’s downright wrong, downright objectionable, downright degrading to theater.

I’ve come to this conclusion after trying for some time to figure out why it’s now so habitually invoked, why “live theater” is now synonymous with “theater.”

I’m still not completely satisfied with the explanation I’ve constructed. All the same, I’ll mention it in order to see if it makes sense to anyone else.

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I think the change starts with the growing marginalization of theater in our culture. The word standing alone—as in the query “How’s ‘bout we go to the theater?”—has, in the age of the movies and television, become a pejorative. Going to the theater is considered something people did back in the day, back in a very distant day, back in a day that’s getting more and more distant with every passing month and year.

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The very notion of theater sounds as if something dated, unhip, not cool is being proposed. Not good in a societal climate where coolness is tantamount. With the contemporary emphasis on being cool, nobody wants to risk the possibility of not living the adjective.

On the other hand, the word “live” has an element of excitement. Wow, real people are going to be up there doing it while we’re in the room with them…how cool is that? And if it’s cool when other people are doing “live theater,” are seeing “live theater,” how cool will I be when I line up for live theater!

The underlying thinking may be that going to live theater is not that different from going to the latest blockbuster flick. Which, in my estimation, goes some way towards explaining more about what’s transpiring in the evolving theater since the preeminent advent of movies.

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In order to capture audiences lost to theater—or maybe not so much lost as attending movies in communities where no theater exists—theater makers have deliberately or unconsciously become more cinematic in their approach.

Playwrights no longer worry about one-set well-made plays, though for budgetary purposes they do keep cast size in mind. Nowadays they think nothing of writing plays with many changes of locale for the simple reason that cinematic fluidity can be achieved by set mobility, lighting and, note this especially, projections. (What regular theatergoer hasn’t noticed the proliferation of projections on stages? The number of outfits specializing in projections, in videos is rising daily.)

Biltmore Theater
New York’s Biltmore Theater in 1935, where the audience milled rather than lined. / via

Notice that above I mentioned lining up for theater. I mean the “lining up” part literally, because nowadays patrons docilely form long lines to enter Manhattan shows. I can’t pinpoint precisely when this started, although I would say it also goes back as far as the mid-‘80s but not much farther. Before then, theater attendees just milled about, often, if you watch theater crowds in old movies, wearing formal clothes. (You can kiss that era goodbye. Today, people dress for the theater as they dress for the movies: very, very informally.)

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So what I think I’m saying is that theater lines began forming at about the same time as the bonded words “live” and “theater” were initially bandied about.  More than that, I think I’m saying that people going to the theater—I’d say they’re tourists seeing blockbuster musicals more than New York City theatergoers—are used to standing in line for the movies. They’re assuming that going to live theater is just like going to the movies.

There is one difference I should mention between movie audiences and “live theater” audiences. The latter give standing ovations—they often can’t wait until they can leap to their feet with loud appreciation. The former don’t ovate standingly. Indeed, moviegoers rarely even applaud. The difference, however, may be at least partially to do with audiences in movie houses wishing they could stomp and cheer. With the performers before them live, they can give in to their impulses. (When patrons cheered Tom Hanks at the curtain call for last season’s Lucky Guy, I had the distinct impression they were clamoring not only about what they’d just witnessed but were also honoring his entire movie career.)

I’ll close this column by admitting that no one I know, including colleagues in the critics community, has ever mentioned the use of the term “live theater” to me, much less expressed an aversion to it. This leads me to wonder whether I’m alone in this or whether others have noticed and either find it a perfectly acceptable application or one that’s no more that a minor irritant.

Any thoughts?