I spend more time thinking about death than pretty much anything else, with the possible exception of the current, past and future states of the Oakland A’s, San Francisco 49ers and Golden State Warriors. I don’t think of this as being especially troubling or indicative of some sort of deeper, psychological problem. I assume everyone spends most of their time thinking about death. This assumption is based primarily on the fact that I read scripts for a living.
If I were to go back and break down every script I’ve ever read, organizing and categorizing their various components, I’m pretty sure that death would win the award for Most Popular Conflict. In fact, I’m positive it would. It wouldn’t even be close. My mind reels thinking of the number of plays I’ve read featuring characters who have died or are preparing to die or are in danger of dying and exploring the way they and those around them face this inevitability. I’ve talked before about how reading as many scripts as I do, that massive bulk of self-expression, makes me feel as if I have a unique window into our collective psyche. And what I see most clearly through that window is a deep and unshakeable need to reckon with death.
Now, obviously, other art forms deal with death too. They deal with it a lot. The difference is that most of these other art forms seemingly exist to defy death, to run away from it. Whether or not the art says anything revelatory about death, its very existence is an act of defiance against it. I can watch an Orson Welles movie, or look at a painting by Picasso and the impact that their creations have on me is not altered by the fact that they’re dead. The work is its own form of immortality, a way of having one’s voice heard even when they can no longer speak. This is very cool and I suspect it’s a large part of why many people make art. Theater, on the other hand, has no choice but to embrace death as an inherent part of the form. I will never get to see Laurence Olivier do Shakespeare on stage or John Barrymore or Sarah Bernhardt or Paul Robeson and this is simply because they have all died. No recording, no amount of second-hand reportage can capture the feelings transmitted by these artists standing on stage, performing for those lucky enough to share space with them in that moment. And that ephemerality is encoded into the work itself, going all the way back to the script and the first moment when pen was put to paper.
The one constant in theater is that it is a live art. Or, if you want to be cute, alive art. But once it ceases to be alive, it is dead. And there’s no coming back from that. People who work in theater are reminded of this constantly, be it consciously or not. They know that no two performances are alike, that once the curtain goes down the story that was told that night will never, ever be told again. Yes, the same group will get up the next night and say the same lines under the same lights in the same costumes but we all know that a performance is more than just the sum of those parts. It’s also the argument the lead actor had with his girlfriend earlier that day, the stage manager calling a cue one second too early, the briefest of pauses when someone went up on their lines, the weather outside that day. And because every performance is different, each of those performances will only ever be known by those who sat in the audience and watched it. And then it will be gone forever. So everyone who works in theater has lived through as many deaths as they have performances. It’s no wonder we’re all so obsessed with it.
As anyone who was forced to read Tuck Everlasting in school can attest, eternal life is not all that it’s cracked up to be. It’s death, that sense of the finite, that gives life meaning and value. I spend a lot of time harping on the importance of regarding theater as an event, as something singular and special, and I do so because every performance is indeed singular and special. It’s that perspective that will inspire people to put down the remote, close the laptop, get in the car and go see a play. It’s the reason why I write these damn things. And it’s also the reason why I hate theater that tries to deny the existence of its audience, that asks you to sit silently in the dark (as close to non-existence as one can possibly be), to unwrap your candies before the lights go down, to shuffle off afterwards without even a glance at the person sitting next to you. We have all come together to share in the life of that play, to watch it be born, and grow up and die, all in that brief time between lights up and lights down. And if we can’t look around at one another and recognize that we are sharing in something unique and precious, then all it amounts to is a life not worth living.
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.