On the art of watching

By Monica Prendergast, November 2014

Three productions in November illustrate how theatre helps us grow.

Paul Woodruff, professor of philosophy at the University of Texas, published a book called The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched in 2008. There are very few philosophy books about theatre, so this was a must-read for me.

Theatre has felt necessary to me for most of my life, and I consider theatregoing to be one of the most valuable activities I do. My graduate studies thesis and dissertation were both on aspects of theatre audience education and spectatorship. So I get that there is something of worth in watching, and from the actor’s perspective, in being watched. 

Woodruff agrees, saying: “There is an art to watching and being watched, and that is one of the few arts on which all human beings depend.” 

How is it that we depend on these actions and activities? Well, we begin our lives being closely watched, which is a necessity for survival. Our parents watch over us in various ways for the rest of their lives. Their lives may end with us taking our turn watching over them. And we learn how to watch over our own children, for better or worse, from these formative experiences.

Theatre provides an art form that mimics this kind of close emotional attention. In a powerful play, or performance (or both), we can connect with a character and his or her struggles in a deeply caring way. Like a parent, we might wish to see this fictional person find happiness, take a stand, make a better choice, or come to terms with a truth about themselves they cannot or will not see. Woodruff believes that we can practice this kind of empathetic attention to the lives of others by going to the theatre: “If we are unwatched, we diminish, and we cannot be what we entirely wish to be.”

November offers three new theatre productions at which we can practice the art of watching. 

There is a lot of watching going on in one of Shakespeare’s most popular plays, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, playing at the Phoenix Theatre November 6 to 22, and directed by Fran Gebhard. The quartet of young lovers at the heart of the play are watching each other very closely for signs of love and fidelity, as are their parents. When they escape to the magical woods, the watchers are the spirits who reside there. And they have their own ways of observing and controlling what happens.

Sprite Puck’s flowery potion forces whoever receives it to fall passionately in love with the next person he or she sees. The resulting chaos allows an audience to both delight in the comedy of the situation and to recognize the myriad humiliations of love. Lovers learn to be careful what they wish for when some of their supposed wishes come true. When all is returned to order at the end of the play, we may feel as many characters do, again according to Woodruff: “If we never stop to watch, we will only know how it feels to be us, never how it might feel to be another.”

The feelings and actions of another are at the heart of the Belfry’s November production, the two-hander Venus in Fur by David Ives. Belfry leading lady Celine Stubel plays an actress, Vanda, auditioning for a demanding playwright/director. Vancouver actor Vincent Gale takes the male lead as Thomas. But the interest in the play lies in the scenes the two of them perform from Thomas’ play. It is based on the 1870 novel Venus in Fur by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch about a dominant-submissive sexual relationship…from whence we get masochism. 

The play-within-a-play structure in Ives’ 2010 play allows us to view the sexual gamesmanship with a modicum of distance. Until maybe it isn’t just an audition any more? 

Venus in Fur premiered and was very successful in New York. It has gone on to be produced in many regional theatres across North America and elsewhere. Local actress Amanda Lisman has just played Vanda in Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects production. The play has also been seen in Vancouver and Toronto. So Victoria audiences will have the chance to see a popular play with two strong actors, directed by Belfry Artistic Director Michael Shamata (November 11 to December 14). I imagine the play will test Woodruff’s position, at least from one perspective, that “Watched too much, or in the wrong way, we become frightened.”

Langham Court’s November showing is a frightening new Canadian play I would have more likely expected to see at the Belfry, perhaps, given its programming mandate versus Langham’s. But I applaud Langham for selecting Small Room at the Top of the Stairs, a 2012 play by celebrated Quebec playwright Carole Fréchette. Her take on the Bluebeard tale gives us a young wife who has been swept off her feet by a charming and wealthy man. His mansion home is divine and hers to enjoy, but she can never ever go into the room at the top of the stairs. Curiosity killed the cat, they say, so we will have to see what director Naomi Simpson and her company create for us from November 20 through December 6. Maybe the production will help us heed Woodruff’s warning that “Watching too much, we lose the capacity for action in our own lives.”

I believe that theatregoing is an art in itself that can be cultivated through experience over a lifetime. My role as a CBC Radio theatre reviewer offers me the privilege to weigh in on local theatre productions. This is the opportunity a critic has to participate in the cultural conversation that is theatre. I am always mindful to take a valuing position on everything I see. I know full well how difficult it is to mount a play, what an extraordinary victory it is to get to opening and closing every time. 

As an audience member, I get to witness the dedicated work of dozens come to fruition as a gift that is offered up, night after night. Sometimes when everything coalesces—the right play, the right company, the right night—a fleeting sense of belonging to something larger than myself may pass through me and those gathered with me— a sense of being part of a watchful community that cares about this most human of arts. I believe this is good for all of us, in the theatre building and beyond. And Woodruff agrees: “Watching well, together, and being watched well, with limits on both sides, we grow, and grow together.”

Monica hopes to see you at the theatre this, or any other, month. Woodruff’s book is published by Oxford University Press.