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The drama of listening

The effort to really hear the dialogue, as well as the pauses in between, is the theatergoer's greater reward.

October 20, 2002|David Rambo | Special to The Times

Listening fascinates me. Always has. I sometimes make the excuse for waiting a bit late in the game to start a writing career by saying, "I just listened for 36 years. Then I started writing it all down."

Some of my most vivid memories of storytelling and compelling human interaction involve being the wide-eyed, open-eared child at the table, listening to my elders tell jokes, quote scripture, read the newspaper, fling accusations, defend opinions, make excuses, reprimand, flatter, terrify, seduce, humiliate, ennoble, inspire, confess and lie.

My Great-Aunt Bertha saw to it that my mother, growing up in the hardscrabble coal country of central Pennsylvania, was given elocution lessons at an early age. Years later, when I was a small child, Mom and Aunt Bertha would "do pieces" for me. I loved listening to them. Still do. If you've never heard James Whitcomb Riley's "Little Orphant Annie" recited to make your eyes pop, your jaw drop and the little hairs on your arm stand up, let me take you to a certain assisted-living facility in Boyertown, Pa., where Great-Aunt Bertha, now 90, needs little prompting to give a private performance. Just ask the maids.

Listening isn't a passive act. To listen, really listen, takes effort. The payoff is not always what the listener may have hoped for. The result may be wonderful. It may be awful. What is heard, or overheard, may be information that was never intended to land upon the ears: that insight, that sharp observation, that admission of guilt. It may be a vindication, or a call to action; it may soothe, or sting.

The ancient Greeks crowded in amphitheaters to hear myths brought to life by human voices. In my play, "God's Man in Texas," a preacher asks to hear God's whisper. The Greeks not only heard their gods whisper, they could hear them participating in human life, not a bad reward for spending a few hours at the theater.

A few millennia later, the Elizabethans, presented with the most sublime use of language in Western drama, understandably referred to going to the theater as "going to hear a play."

Then, in the late 1800s, brilliant American director and playwright Augustin Daly broke the centuries-old "stand and declaim" conventions of acting and brought momentum to the act of speaking dialogue. Momentum in speech demanded realism in settings and costumes. Realism became spectacle. Daly put the American West on stage, with all its buttes, mesas, prairies, rivers and waterfalls. His Shakespearean forests had trees that dropped leaves and streams that sparkled. It wasn't enough for his audience to hear the heroine was in peril; they could see it as Daly actually tied her to the railroad tracks in "Under the Gaslight" -- the first time that particular trick was pulled. In 1888, he debuted the use of electric light on the stage in what must have been an enthralling (and perilous) "A Midsummer Night's Dream," strapping acid batteries beneath the fairies' costumes to illuminate lights in their hair and at the tips of their magic wands.

And audiences no longer said they were going to "hear" a play, they began to "see" a play.

But the innovations of Daly and his imitators soon became old hat, as innovations will. Visceral, psychological, realistic acting -- as evolved from Stanislavsky to the east, and the Group Theatre and Actors Studio here -- became the innovation. Now we didn't just hear or see a play, we could "feel" it. The art transcended speech and spectacle.

Who, or what, is to blame?

Are audiences still listening? What are they doing during the pre-show announcement to silence pagers and cell phones? Talking? Where once they whispered, now they shout to their companions during the play, perhaps to be heard over the assisted-listening devices plugging their ears. Don't they realize the crumple of cellophane that sounds so innocuous at home in front of the television sounds like a helicopter taking off in a theater?

Can we blame it all on television? On the general decline in civility and generosity between people in public? Was it the '60s? Is it simply that we compete with shortened attention spans in an age in which information and conversation are transmitted at the speed of light? Is that why the form has evolved from the daylong festival to the five-act, from four acts to three, from two acts to the 75-minute one-act play?

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