Columns / Discourse / January 21, 2009

Surprise! It’s theater

Theater walks a fine line. You can’t look at its definition straight on. It’ll slap you a good one on the cheek if you try, and break a leg attempting to pin down a definition on your own. Trying to characterize Theater is just asking to be propelled into a dodgy neck of the woods.

Theater doesn’t require a theater. It doesn’t require a script, a set, costumes, a director – cut out all the excess and you get a performer, an audience, and a purpose. Sometimes that purpose is as simple as willingly stepping into that dodgy neck of the woods and dragging some poor, unsuspecting saps with you.

Let me tell you, I’ve been the poor sap on more than one occasion.

Once, walking down the main drag of a mall, I did an awkward two-step with a guy with a mop. You know the routine. I’ll go this way, oops, you’re going that way? Okay, I’ll go this way, uh oh, wrong again. It was only after he shook his head, handed me the mop, and casually strolled away whistling that I knew suddenly I was a performer but he held all the cards.

I had been hoodwinked. Now that he had his victim, the janitor (who I now know was a paid actor), teased me at the gathering crowd’s delight and my own expense for a good long while, until gratefully it was over and I handed back the mop and stepped out of the spotlight.

Skip a few years ahead. I’m in Disney World on my way to Expedition Everest and as I pass by, suddenly the painters working on a fence are transformed into rivals outdoing each other in progressively more fantastic physical feats all for a trophy made out of a paintbrush. It’s such a treat when acts like that sneak up on you and surprise you out of your tunnel vision.

Good jokes take a twist of insight to make them funny. Surprise theater is like that. You could compare it to the Necker Cube, the ambiguous two-dimensional line drawing which (with a adjustment in perception) will flip between two separate but valid orientations of the cube. This mental tweak is what gives surprise theater its charm. Since it doesn’t quite make sense in either plane in which your mind places it, you have to stay on your toes.

When you find yourself already in the middle of a surprise theater sketch and no one’s explained the rules yet (not that they’re going to), half the fun is that you’re left guessing even when it’s all over. Asking questions usually ruins the sparkle.

Performers who specialize in this mode of theater work best when you’re off balance. Word to the wise: Don’t try to outdo them; they can pull at least ten rugs out from under your feet before you can say, “that’s what she said.”

Buskers (street performers) take advantage of surprise Theater’s pull. The, “I just need to know what happens next” phenomenon is even more intense when you’re a part of the action. A loud, funny argument will break out on a street corner between two guys who pass the hat afterwards when a traffic-clogging crowd has gathered to witness the outcome.

In a similar sense, at a Renaissance Festival, you might be drawn into a sentencing of a witch (a regular gal pulled from the crowd) or a duel to the death over a fair maiden (another regular gal). If the performance is good enough to keep up that continuous mental tweaking, it’ll take some serious will power to be able to pull yourself away. Just in case you’re drawing comparisons to “tweaking’s” usage, the event I’m referring to may cause you similar rational distress, but in a playful, tongue in cheek kind of way.

So if you’re lucky enough to happen to walk onto a stage that’s been transformed by a surprise Theater performer into a mall’s central courtyard, a street corner, or a shop front, let yourself experience that delightfully unbalanced moment and all the allure that goes with it. Because ultimately, it’s the things that leave us laughing or reeling that will stick with us, and surprise Theater does both.

Kelsey Ingle

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