Which hits harder, writing or performance?

Or, when the next Chicago scandal hits, who will uncover it?

May 15, 2012

In our conversation yesterday about My Kind of Town, Steve Edwards raised the question why the staged version of Chicago’s police torture scandal affected audiences so much more, and more viscerally, than written accounts of the scandal.  There’s the physical presence of theater, of course, in which characters are embodied by real humans who breathe and sweat and pick bits of lint off their clothing, and whether these characters are foul-mouthed criminals or sadistic cops, we can’t help but recognize them as fellow members of our species.  And there’s a play’s ability to tell two stories simultaneously and allow the audience to draw parallels and infer equivalences that might not otherwise have occurred to them; while a newspaper story that tries to tell two stories simultaneously will be either a muddle or an exercise in pedantry: first look at this, now look at this, now look back again.

But there’s a more contemporary reason why encountering the Burge torture case onstage (however concealed) is more powerful than encountering it in newsprint.  That’s the technological change which has rendered newspapers nearly obsolete while simultaneously making performances more widely accessible than ever before.

What is there today that everybody reads the way “everybody” (a wide swath of people of a particular age and social class across the city) read the Chicago Reader in the 1980s?  Nothing.  Everybody picked up the Reader to get the movie and music listings, if for no other reason, and perhaps the 17th time the cover story was about police torture even the most determinedly obtuse reader might have felt compelled to take a look.  But that sort of consensus forum no longer exists, and the consensus fora of the future have yet to make themselves known.  So John Conroy’s fine reporting may be being emulated right now by a writer with another terrific (or horrific) story to tell –but only the 12 people who read her blog will know about it.

Whereas theater, long the most local of art forms, can now be shared worldwide if there’s someone around with a video camera.  Actors’ Equity will prevent broadcast for profit of a show in which its members work, but union rules may not cover free broadcast of a matter of significance.  If the Metropolitan Opera can present its operas on movie screens, then Chicago theaters can probably share their own creativity with anyone with an Internet connection.

So there are two questions: why staged work feels so much more intense than written work, and which is more likely to get the kind of widespread concentrated attention that finally brought the police torture scandal to Mayor Daley’s doorstep.  The answer to the first question is unchanged from the days of Greek theater (catharsis, anyone?), but the answer to the second is very much in flux.  If the theater now has the potential to become the Living Newspaper the WPA people dreamed of, then maybe the media landscape isn’t the howling wilderness we fear.