Even though both cinema and theater are predominantly observational mediums, they sure do like to avoid steeping the audience in observing the minute face of the act of artistic creation and audience consumption.
Yes, there are examples aplenty across movies and shows that depict moments of inspiration for artists, and/or moments of joy derived from art by an audience; we might get a montage of a writer writing, or a brief shot of a crowd enjoying a movie as the light from the screen illuminates their joyously-rapt visages. But in our meta-obsessed era, why does art shy away from allowing us to sit with and witness, not only to see but to feel, the durational, strenuous reality of what the artistic process looks like from the outside?
I mean, the answer is probably obvious: watching a writer write and/or an audience audiencing sounds boring!
But a few recent pieces demonstrate the refreshing novelty of being able to spend our time doing nothing more than living in the presence of how the artistic process actually operates in real life. From the seeming nothing on display, comes the majesty of art’s teeming everything of nothing.
Who Killed My Father at St. Ann’s Warehouse featured a more customary depiction of what I’m referring to. As audiences stroll into the theater, playwright/performer Édouard Louis is already on stage, typing away on his laptop. As we prepare to take in his art, we gaze at the initial “preparation” — the upfront effort required on his end — to ultimately gather us all here this evening (or afternoon).
But because the house lights are still up, I bet most audiences barely clock Louis before returning to their phones or chitchatting with their companions. Not to mention all us last-minute arrivers who almost entirely miss the opportunity to behold!
Which is why I’m more interested in art that houses such a spectacle WITHIN their runtimes, forcing the audience to settle in and gander at the mundane surface of art’s alchemy, from beginning to end.
Another view from one such beginning can be found in Will Arbery’s Corsicana at Playwrights Horizons. During the second act, Arbery’s onstage avatar relays a formative memory from his childhood, one he’s been striving to textually detail in an attempt to clarify his spotty recall, to make some sense of its lasting impact on him. Smack in the middle of his regaling, he has a spark of revelation, as if he talked himself into unearthing a new tidbit. He pauses his speech, pulls out his phone, and types for tens of seconds — with nothing else going on to occupy the audience’s attention — jotting down whatever he just recollected.
Ladies and gents, we hope you enjoyed observing someone getting mused, an essential cog in the long timeline that ended with you inside that theater on that night (or afternoon).
And now, art that presents the audience end of this alchemical timeline:
In the movie Benediction, a secondary character presents the lead with a hot-off-the-presses poem. The camera clings to the latter’s face as he reads — at a painstakingly measured clip — about how war murders the eternally unrealized promise of its young casualties. The movie all but stops, clearing out all other possibly distracting stimuli, to ensure all eyes are on his expression as he savors every word.
He’s clearly touched by the literature, and his normal exterior fails to convey just how profoundly it affects him.
Until the end of the movie.
As the next generation heads to yet another fatal skirmish, the poem’s sentiments crash land back in his psyche. Decades later, he reaches a deeper understanding of what’s happening all around him through the residual legacy of that very first interaction with the poem’s words.
The 30 seconds he spent reading the poem — which the audience was privy to — forever altered his lifelong conception of soldiers, the fragility of human existence, and the promise ripped away from each and every individual felled in a bloody battle. How many more minds could have been permanently enlightened — as his was — if the author had only survived?
Yes, how momentous that he’s remembered by someone, but how tragic the brutal limitations exacted on his potential reach.
Taken together, all of these scenes should remind audiences of the everyday meaning occurring all around us underneath placid images. The sight of artistic creation and artistic consumption is the definition of more than meets the eye; shouldn’t art play a role in plumbing that more?
The original production of Annie Baker’s The Flick included an infamous minutes-long section where its movie-theater-employee characters do nothing more than clean up an audience’s left-behind trash. Sans dialogue, they sweep every aisle, between every row, under every seat, as they must multiple times per day, after every screening.
Tedious? I guess. But there’s value in prompting audiences to consider the oft-forgotten labor on which public art relies.
It might not be dramatic, but perhaps the most extraordinarily important drama of our lives merely appears ordinary from afar. And art can mine beyond these visually-pedestrian depths.