[I'm reposting this after seeing Studio Tenn's production of The Miracle Worker last week. It's incredible. Go see it.]
“Yes, I have tricks in my pocket. I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
–From The Glass Menagerie by Tennessee Williams
I sat in the theater, huddled around the stage with a hundred strangers, and watched as the narrator sauntered out of the darkness and smirked at us. Those words, the first of his opening soliloquy, made me nod and smile and whisper to myself, “I’m going to enjoy this.”
I’m not sure what it is that keeps me from the theater. Every time I go, I’m glad I did. But it seems I usually hear about productions after they’ve come and gone. There’s no marquee next to the mall to remind me of what I’m missing, and there’s no stage version of a Fandango app to feed me show times and reviews. So, too often, plays by local theater companies slip by under my radar until I hear about them from someone else long after the curtain has fallen.
But seeing Studio Tenn’s production of Tennessee Williams’ The Glass Menagerie and most recently, The Miracle Worker (now playing), reminded me once again what I forget all too easily: that the stage is a magical place. For all the explosions and special effects and cinematic trickery that movies offer, there is no substitute for sitting twenty feet from a cast of actors and watching their lives unfold and fall apart right there in the room with you. It’s easy to maintain emotional distance from an eighty foot movie screen, but when you sit in front of a gifted actress and watch her weep, hear her heaving breath, see the quivering of her lips, the redness in her eyes, and the pain in her voice, there’s no getting away from it. That’s the power of the stage. It’s right in front of you. It’s inescapable. In demands your attention.
Tennessee Williams knew that when he gave his narrator those words. He’s telling us that the stage may not look like a St. Louis tenement, the room may not have walls, the actors may be mere pretenders in the end, but despite all of that, something real is about to happen. Something important is going to be said. He’s going to paint a picture of the truth with a palette of illusion. And he’s going to do it right in front of our eyes.
That’s a bold goal but it ought to be the mission of every storyteller no matter the medium. My job as a writer is to whittle my story down to the bare truth at its heart and then build around it the best illusions I can muster, illusions that support and even illuminate without distracting. The failure to understand this is precisely why so many films fall flat—the storyteller is enraptured by his own illusion and forgets to paint the truth. If there’s not a kernel of truth at the heart of the story, then all the action sequences, precise prose, and emotionally manipulative music on earth can’t save it.
And the opposite is true as well. If your story has a solid foundation, then the audience will want desperately to believe in your illusions. They will want to believe because they’ll see the truth in the story. They’ll forget that the set doesn’t look like a St. Louis tenement or an Alabama mansion. They will pay no attention to the props as they roll onto and off of the stage. They may even forget that the theater around them exists at all, because for a precious few hours the truth is unfolding before them, inescapably, right in front of their eyes.
When the lights come up at the end of the show, they’ll feel like they’ve returned from some far away place, having briefly been voyeurs at the window of another life. The truth of the story has sold the illusion. And they believe it. That’s great storytelling. That’s what every teller of every tale ought to aspire to.