I love Disneyland. The rest of the Disney empire-the movies and merchandise and TV shows and cruise lines, the whole entire lifestyle thing-I could probably do without but I remain semi-obsessed by Disneyland. And frankly, I don’t know why the rest of the theater world isn’t. It’s a theme park. It’s an entire park dedicated to theme. If you think Einstein on the Beach was epic or Sleep No More is immersive, try 85-acres that present a near-constant show filled with dozens of characters, rides, fireworks, fucking hourly parades. Better yet, go to Orlando and check out a 47-square mile version of the same thing. That one’s got four theme parks, two water parks, 23 on-site themed resort hotels and five golf courses.
But it’s not the size of the respective Disney parks that fascinates me. Check out this quote from Disneyland’s Wikipedia page and say hello to the world’s largest play:
“…a visit to the park is intended to be similar to witnessing a performance. For example, visitors are referred to as ‘guests’ and park employees as ‘cast members.’ ‘On stage’ refers to any area of the resort that is open to guests. ‘Backstage’ refers to any area of the resort that is closed to guests. A crowd is referred to as an ‘audience.’ ‘Costume’ is the attire that cast members who perform the day-to-day operations of the park must wear…’Show’ is the resort’s presentation to its guests, such as the color and façades of buildings, placement of rides and attractions, costumes to match the themed lands…’Stage managers’ are responsible for overseeing the operation of the different areas of the park. Cast members who are in charge of a specific team are called ‘leads,’…Each cast member’s job is called a ‘role.’ When working in their roles, cast members must follow a ‘script.’ This is not a traditional play script, but more of a strict code of conduct and approved, themed phraseology that cast members may use when at work.”
Every aspect of Disneyland is a part of their show, helping to build a world and communicate a theme. In this case, the theme is both maddeningly vague and totally resonant. There’s a certain kind of nostalgia that everything at Disneyland reeks of. It’s not exactly Colonial Williamsburg. There’s no specific time or place that Disneyland harkens back to. But the warm reassurance and comfort that the place, with its carefully constructed phraseology and meticulously detailed façades, evokes really is powerful, suggesting a kind of fantasy world that probably never existed but that plausibly could have and that it’s nice to believe did at one point in our past. Lest you doubt the power of this theme, look at how popular it has become in our culture. Look at how it has spawned movies and merchandise and TV shows and cruise lines. Disneyland isn’t just one of the world’s largest plays. It’s one of the world’s most successful too. We should be studying this stuff like Shakespeare.
Being semi-obsessed, I’m not going to stop there with the hyperbole. Oh no. Here’s three more takeaways from the Magic Kingdom:
My hands-down favorite is Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride. The fact that they allow children on this thing is bananas. Just to recap for those not familiar with the incredibly surreal three-minute experience that is this ride, it centers on the character from Wind in the Willows. Mr. Toad is, as best I can tell, a petulant trust-fund kid who likes to buy expensive cars and then crash them. This is essentially what the ride is. You are a passenger as Mr. Toad careens dangerously through various cityscapes (made literal through ghoulish cardboard cutouts that pop up in front of you) until you are caught and put before a judge. Then you escape, only to end up on train tracks. You’re hit head-on by a train, you go to Hell, and then the ride ends. Seriously, the ride ends with you dead and in Hell. The whole thing is like some feverish nightmare, the kind that stays with you long after you’ve woken up. Evocative stuff. It makes me wish that theater wasn’t always the scenery moving around while the audience remained stationery. Sometimes I wish it was the other way around.
It’s not at all surprising that theme parks almost always contain an inordinate amount of robots. Theme parks are all about creating alternate realities to enter into. And yet, at the same time, they don’t want you to enter in completely. They don’t want you to forget that what you have been presented with is a fantasy, a fiction. It’s that recognition that allows you to enjoy the experience, to take something away from it. Sound familiar, guys? Yeah, that’s what theater is supposed to do. And nothing allows you to walk that fine line like staring into the dead but also kinda live eyes of animatronic creatures. We’ve already talked about the How To Train Your Dragon live show and their crazy-ass dragon robots. But also check this video out. It’s going to be about ten years before theaters are able to afford this kind of thing on a widespread basis and I for one am looking forward to the day when someone does A Winter’s Tale and has Antigonus exit, pursued by a DARPA robot bear.
Stay with me here. One of the more popular factoids in all of the “secrets of Disneyland” books that exist (of which I have read many) is the fact that Disneyland pumps smells through vents on their Main Street, peppermint, chocolate, vanilla, etc.. It all depends on the time of year you’re visiting and the particular store you’re walking by. This idea came from the man himself, Walt Disney. This guy, raging anti-Semite though he might have been, understood the complete sensory experience that any performance should create for its audience. It’s not just what you see and hear, it’s what you smell too, what you feel. Imagine a Twelfth Night or The Tempest where you can actually smell the salt water, feel the sea breeze. Or if you want to go a little more populist, imagine A Christmas Carol filled with Christmasy scents.
For as much as we might like to look down at theme parks, to bitch about the long lines and high prices and crass commercialism of it all, we’re in the same business as they are. We’re creating worlds through which stories can be told. And while our stories might be smarter, more insightful, and more challenging than anything that the Disney machine spews out, they’ve got us beat in the world-creating department. We’ll probably never close that gap. But we can steal their ideas.
About the Author: Dylan Southard is the co-Artistic Director of needtheater and previously served as their resident dramaturg and literary manager. Production dramaturgy credits for needtheater include: Fatboy, Mercury Fur, Scarcity, tempOdyssey, and The Web. He also directed needtheater's world premiere production of Guided Consideration of a Lamentable Deed. He is the resident dramaturg for The Robey Theatre Company at the Los Angeles Theater Center, where he runs the advanced playwrights lab and helps to oversee new play development. He is also an associate artist with the international, new script development group LoNyLa, and works as a script consultant for theaters, including The Center Theatre Group, The Geffen Playhouse, The Theatre @ Boston Court, and Native Voices at the Autry. He trained for two years under a dramaturgy fellowship at Centerstage in Baltimore and is a graduate of Wesleyan University.