WTF is “Theatre”

In a blog post, Stephen Spotswood asked “What do you think of when you say ‘theatre’?”

After reading his article, I wanted to address it in my own blog post, rather than as a comment.

How do you define what theatre is?  Wikipedia says:

Theatre (or theater, see spelling differences) is a branch of the performing arts. Any performance may be considered theatre; however, as a performing art, theatre focuses almost exclusively on live performers enacting a self-contained drama before an audience

The Miriam-Webster dictionary has additional definitions.  Most of the definitions have to do with the building, or that plays are done there.  But that’s not what Stephen is asking.

When I was in my first year of theatre school, on the first day of our acting class, the head of acting asked us to define theatre.  We all gave answers similar to wikipedia and the Mirriam-Webster. After we had exhausted these answers, we were told that these things were not theatre.  That theatre was a moment.  That moment when “audience and performer breathe together”.

Its a little vague, at least until you’ve experienced it.  But its right.  I don’t think its all of it, but it is right.  Theatre sort of falls into the category of “I know it when I see it”.  Like a conversation I was having with Red Herring via twitter, about what makes burlesque different from say…stripping:  its that burlesque is theatre (or at least has theatricality).

What do I mean when I say theatre?  I usually mean a few things.  The “breathing together” thing I heard in theatre school, mixed with a bit of spectacle, mixed with drama.

Stephen also talks about an article by Gwydion Suilebhan that talked about a company that does Physical Theatre called Synetic Theater, and whether the work they do should be considered along side works more “traditional” in nature for a Washinton DC Theatre award.  Now I’m not familiar with the work that Synetic does, but as a member of Keystone Theatre, which presents a form of theatre that lacks spoken word (we do plays in the style of silent film).  Do we believe that what we do is theatre?  Absolutely.  It it at all like dance?  Not a bit.  It is physical theatre, but I find the idea that it doesn’t deserve to be along side “the likes of Oklahoma andClybourne Park” insulting.  Is it theatre? Well, in my mind it most certainly is: it meets all of my criteria for determining what theatre is.

And that’s my response (however rambling) to the question.


  1. Here’s the thing: I never said that what Synetic does isn’t theater. I said that to my mind, it was dance, but that since others say it’s theater, it should be considered theater, because we benefit from the broadest possible definition of theater.

    I did say that what they create aren’t plays; I’ve said that repeatedly, and I stand by it. I don’t believe that a script consisting entirely of stage directions (or that exists only in the choreographed movements of performers) isn’t a play script. Your mileage, of course, may vary.

    Yes, that means that I’m saying “plays in the style of silent film” means, to me, “not plays.” Perhaps what you do deserves its own term: silent plays. Not being familiar with it, it’s hard for me to say. (It does sound cool, incidentally, and I’d love to see it sometime.)

    All of which is to say, really, that my primary argument was about the Helen Hayes Awards here in DC. Year after year, awards that might otherwise go to theater companies making what I define as plays are going instead to Synetic (which does deserve to be recognized for its amazing work). That’s what bothers me. My argument is they deserve a special award in a special movement-based theater category… not that they don’t deserve any awards at all.

    In the end, though, I’m sorry if you did feel insulted. I certainly never intended anyone to feel that way.


    • See, I didn’t know that about Synetic: that they won an award year after year. That’s the problem with awards: if a company consistently does great work, should they be awarded every year? What about other companies that are over shadowed by this one company, who aren’t really considered for an award because this one company is in contention. What happens then? Do you not award an excellent company in order to provide a chance for another company? Do you judge one company by a higher standard because of their consistent good work, and thus create a higher standard for them (which isn’t really fair…everyone is supposed to be judged by the same standard, right?). Tough question.

      The work that Keystone does, interestingly, does have dialogue. Just not dialogue that can be heard. Just like in a Keaton or Chaplin movie, the characters speak to each other, but since the work is silent the audience cannot hear the dialogue. It is conveyed both through the live music, and through the use of intertitles where needed. I really wish you could see the work that we do. Maybe you’ll change your mind. Maybe you won’t. But we could discuss it, and maybe understand a little better what each thinks this mysterious thing called “theatre” is.

      Your comment has clarified for me what you meant. My taking “offense” at my perception of what you meant had more to do with the idea that what we spent over 4 years developing (a theatrical style of a silent film) is lesser than say…a musical or a traditional play. I see that you didn’t quite mean what I initially perceived that you meant. Thanks for taking the time to clarify this for me.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *