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Theater is a Temple for Feeling Your Feelings

Are you ready? I am going to tell you, in rapid succession, a series of anecdotes about myself that I should probably find embarrassing.

At a tour performance of the musical “Dirty Rotten Scoundrels,” my joy is so evident and overwhelming that at intermission, an usher says to me, “Wow, you are really loving this.” I was 16.

At intermission for “Godspell,” when everyone is invited onstage for “communion,” I am shaking with so much emotion that I spill grape juice all over my shoes. I was 21.

At “Matilda,” I am seated in the box – you know, where fancy rich people used to sit so everyone else in the theater would see them. During the second act, I cry, spectacularly and without reservation, for a solid 45 minutes. I was…25. “Matilda” is, yes, a musical for children.

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are people who have never in their whole lives felt as happy as I feel at the theater on a fairly regular basis.

I have a sneaking suspicion that there are people who have never in their whole lives felt as happy as I feel at the theater on a fairly regular basis. The little chiming sound the ticket reader makes when it scans your ticket is my favorite sound on Earth.

And yes, theater also has a tendency, gentle but insistent, to pry open the chasm of sadness inside of me. At the time of this writing, it was 48 hours ago that I sat in the Hayes Theater during “What the Constitution Means to Me” and let myself cry, without an objective, about the Supreme Court confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh, and about Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s infamous quote “When will there be enough women on the court? And my answer is when there are nine.” and about the fact that Ruth Bader Ginsburg was also sitting in that audience on that very same night.

Aristotle introduced the concept of “catharsis” specifically in connection to theater.

Of course, it isn’t just me. Aristotle introduced the concept of “catharsis” specifically in connection to theater. The idea was that you would attend a performance of “Oedipus Rex” and cry and cry and get all your bad feelings out, like excess humors, and then you would feel better. For me, that’s never been exactly what it is, though. I’m crying or laughing or shaking or paralyzed with reverence because I feel seen and transported all at once.

Theater is the most unironic art form on the planet. The audience and the performers are making eye contact with each other. It is earnest, earnest, earnest – often embarrassingly so, often blisteringly so. You can’t press pause. You can’t pull out your phone. You can’t even walk out without it being a big deal. You just have to sit there and endure it, like Steve Rogers howling in agony as he gets pumped full of Vita-Rays. And if you can stand it – if you don’t turn away to make snide remarks to your friend, if you don’t tune out, if you don’t scoff and close yourself up – and if the art is good and true…well, it’s overwhelming. Again, Steve Rogers in that metal coffin screaming his head off.

If you reacted like this at the movies, it would be fine, but definitely weird. At the theater? It’s like how slurping up delicious noodles is, in some countries, a compliment to the chef. The actors can see you, and they know that the spell they’re casting is working. Together you are building a bridge — a bridge of shared humanity. A bridge of All The Feels.

“Be More Chill” has turned its theater into a safe space to lose your mind with absolute emotion.

My favorite recent experience of this phenomenon was at “Be More Chill.” More, even, than most shows, “Be More Chill” has turned its theater into a safe space to lose your mind with absolute emotion. The show has only made it to Broadway because of its devoted cult following. Gratitude for that fandom is part of its DNA. “Be More Chill” makes it easy and affordable to score good seats – you just have to care enough to wait outside the box office in the morning. Visitors in the front two rows get a free pin. And the show rewards repeat visitors by changing the design of the pin every month.

The audience is glutted with teenagers who exhibit a distinct, delightful lack of chill. At a regular Thursday evening performance, I saw a girl dressed in a detailed, loving recreation of one of the characters’ costumes. Actors like George Salazar and Jason Tam get the entrance applause they richly deserve, even though they’re playing secondary characters. Every joke lands. Every riff elicits impressed catcalls. The atmosphere is raucous.

If you’re interested in feeling more feelings than you even knew you contained, I recommend “Be More Chill.” Or “What the Constitution Means to Me.” Or “Come From Away.” Or “The Prom.” Or whatever other show you think might be vibrating at the same frequency as your secret innermost heart. The performance will be great. The audience will be even better. Just don’t you dare turn away.

Featured photo: Will Roland and the Off-Broadway cast of “Be More Chill.” Copyright Maria Baranova.

Published inCulturePersonal

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© Mary Gaulke, 2020.