As Josette Feral explains so lucidly, the main perceptual act in creating theatricality is the carving out of fictional space from mundane space (I am paraphrasing hugely here). To bring a fictional world into being, there needs to be a line of division or a border that sets that world apart from the actual world. The primary function of this frame in preserving this distinction and to state that words spoken and acts performed within that frame have a special status and do not “count” outside that frame. J.L.Austin reiterates this idea in How To Do Things With Words, when he says that statements made inside fictions (in a poem or on the stage) are parasitic on their normal use and lack illocutionary force (22). The corollary of this “not counting” or “lack of force” is that the frame acts as a kind of bubble wrap or air bag creating a safe zone where something “dangerous” that happens inside the frame is rendered “inconsequential” or “safe.” We understand this implicitly about theatrical performance. Actors whose characters are killed are not really dead. Fictional lovers who marry are not really married outside of the fiction. Cruel insults and slurs bounce off the actors and dissipate in the fictional air.
For reality-based theatre (as I’ve been mulling about here), this boundary has been weakened to create the persistent sense in the audience that the stakes are higher and that something “real” is happening (or has happened) — something that actually “counts.” I think this is the reason that so much reality-based theatre is politically-oriented in its content and activist in its intent.
Now of course the theatrical frame is a perceptual construction by the audience and continues to exist as long as the audience perceives the event to be a fictional performance. This is a circular feedback loop. We receive cues that tell us to read the performance as theatre, as a fiction, so we set up the frame and distinguish the contents of the performance indeed as a fiction. And so we take it for fiction. However, in the genre of reality-based theatre, there are a range of strategies at play that encourage us to question that assessment and to reduce our perceptual confidence in the contents as fiction. With a weaker frame created by the audience, we are inclined to real some performance elements as outside the frame, or at the very least to doubt the applicability of the frame.
One important thing, I believe, is that reality-based theatre is a style like any other style (Expressionism, Absurdism, Naturalism). It is not just really really real unfiltered reality. This is not possible, otherwise we would no longer be talking about art. It is a style that works specifically to make audiences question the frame and to invite us to consider that what is in fact a performance might be reality. [It occurs to me that rather than make a list of the perceptually manipulative strategies of reality-based performance here, I think I will do a little series of posts on this and unpack a few of these that I have collected. Stay tuned…]
Ultimately, the effect of this weaker or ambiguous frame is that the audience starts to worry. This effect is particularly potent in autobiographical or confessional performances. In a play like A Brimful of Asha, which stages for us a passionate argument between a mother (Asha Jain) and son (Ravi Jain) about the desire of immigrant parents to have their children fulfill their traditions and expectations — in this case an arranged marriage, this worry can be quite gentle and affectionate. We are amused by the familial banter and wonder how it will all turn out for Ravi in his real life. (We think: Is he married yet? Does he have a girlfriend? What does she think of this performance? What will happen to the performance if he does get married? How is this performance and nightly debate affecting the relationship of mother and son? And so on. Spoiler: Ravi is now indeed married — not an arranged marriage — and still the performance goes on.)
In the case of Winners and Losers (Marcus Youssef and James Long), the stakes are higher. Indeed in this case, I would argue the weakening of the theatrical frame and the accompanying safety concerns experienced by the audience are a prime factor in the play’s appeal. The premise of the play in a nutshell is that Marcus and Jamie play a game they have invented where they choose a person, place or thing at random and debate whether or not it is a winner or a loser. [I have a lot more to say about the criteria that they use in this determination, but that will also have to be another post]. As the performance goes on, they turn the game on themselves and ask the other to assess whether they are a winner or a loser. As you can imagine, the play gets very (very) nasty at this point as candour gives way to cruelty. I want to talk a lot more about Winners and Losers at some point (I have an article in progress on this play), but for now the key point I want to make is about cruelty. Jamie and Marcus say some cutting things to each other; but certainly I have heard worse on the stage. (These guys have nothing on David Mamet for example). But.. but…and this is where the weakened frame becomes relevant. Because of the reality-based strategies at work that have rendered my judgement of the fiction uncertain and eroded my confidence in the theatrical safety net, in spite of myself, I become concerned for the safety of these two and feel the sting of each barb. I think the key is “in spite of myself”; I know this is a performance and I am pretty certain that they say these things to each other every night and I am pretty certain that they are each receiving this as a performance (does not “count”), I can’t help myself. And this is the potency of the weakened frame.