The Differences between Theater and Writing

First of all, this: Theater is heavy.

Very heavy. It seems impossible to make “light” theater equipment. Yesterday, I helped produce a show that was very, very simple. Even in its simplicity, the show was heavy. Heavy boom bases for two lights. Heavy pipe for the bases. Heavy side-arms to hang the lights on. Heavy lights. Heavy cables. Heavy sound equipment. Heavy stage. Heavy props.

Man, theater is heavy.

And theater is immediate. When you do a show, you know right away how it affected your audience. I worked with Gerald Dickens yesterday at the North Church in Portsmouth. It was his twentieth year doing a one-man show of his great grandfather’s famous book, A Christmas Carol. It was a very simple show and the first show I’ve done of any sort in nearly fifteen years. My job was very basic–guide to the show to a successful conclusion and help take care of the little things that need to happen to keep a show on the rails. Mission accomplished.

The effect of putting on a successful show is in the moment–you can see the work that you do right there in front of you on the smiles of the audience’s faces, hear it in their applause, and in the joyous noise of their conversations as they leave. Of course, most of their reaction stemmed from Gerald Dickens’ masterful performance, but no performance happens alone. As a member of the support crew, you know that part of that reaction belongs to you, too. Your work is integral to the moment, even if all you did was focus a few lights or tape down a cable so no one tripped over it or made sure the event started on time. It’s an immediate gratification.

Writing. Ugh. It’s exactly the opposite of theater. You don’t lift anything heavier than a pen, but the weight is immense. You spend hours, days, weeks, months, years, writing something with no indication that anyone will ever read it. You rarely get to see the reaction of your readers (and often, when you do get a reaction, it’s not the one you were hoping for, or the one you felt yourself as you were toiling away, alone).

Most of the time I’ve spent writing has lead to no reaction and/or no readers. A lot of writers talk a good game–say things like: “You don’t’ write for an audience” or “You keep writing because you can’t stop” or “Writing is its own reward” but last night, as I was busy lifting heavy things as we struck the lights, sound, and set of the show, I couldn’t help but wonder if my energies haven’t been misdirected as a writer. I’ve been developing my craft seriously for about seventeen years now (and about seven years before that when I was developing, but not really practicing) and what is there to show for it? Not much, if I’m being honest. Some stories published in literary magazines that a handful of people have read. Hundreds of thousands of words–maybe millions–written, revised, discarded, drafted, and redrafted. Five novel manuscripts that will never see their way into publication. Dozens of unpublished stories for every one published.

And last night, working a small show in church, handing a microphone to an announcer, taking the microphone from her after her introductions, giving Mr. Dickens his “five minute” call, making sure the stage lights and house lights were up or down in the right moments, moving props around on the stage–it was easy to see that my work added up to something–a tangible effect. It made all my writing time seem very, very selfish.

Theater is very heavy, but it makes one feel of use. And it made me reconsider how I’m spending my artistic energies.

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