Texas Tech University

Suspension of Disbelief

Mark Charney

October 26, 2020


When we first experienced theatre, we practiced suspension of disbelief before we knew what that term meant. As children, it was easy. We transported ourselves--in the playground, with our friends, and in our bedrooms--to new worlds every day. We knew pretend wasn't real, but we let our imaginations overcome our reason. Thank goodness.

The same was true when we went to the theatre. We knew that what we were seeing on stage was pretend, but we chose to believe it anyway.

The power of storytelling.

The power of the imagination.

Suspension of disbelief.

Having grown up in a mill town in SC, I loved little more than going to the movies, and, of course, only saw them in movie theatres (no VHS tapes or DVD's in the 60s and 70s), and then, years later, either when the popular films enjoyed a second run in theatres or showed up on television (often edited for content).

But theatre had my heart. And it still does, even now without the most obvious quality that makes it different from film: being live.

Like everyone else, I currently mourn everything about the absence of live theatre from the rehearsal to the ensembles, from the table work to the run of the show. I miss holding a program. Pre-show music. Intermissions. Orchestras. The whole shebang.

But in spite of how often I am now in front of a computer—and like you, I imagine too often—I'm in awe of the theatre I'm seeing using platforms I never imagined. For me, it began with Richard Nelson's Incidental Moments of the Day, the third Zoom play in his trilogy about the Apple family in New York, a play written acknowledging the pandemic. I loved spending time with the Apple family, empathizing with their familial struggles and finding true moments of beauty in their epiphanies.

And this love was reinforced recently with TTU's most recent two endeavors: 20/20 Visions: The Violet Response Project, a play devised by director Hillary Boyd and her cast/designers/crew/dramaturg, and The Blue Flower, a new play by Bryce Real directed by Jesse Jou. The first created a timely piece of theatre in response to their ensemble's reaction to the musical Violet, truly exploiting the medium of Zoom in music, video, talk show format, and internal speculation, while the second overcame restrictions of Zoom by imaginatively embracing the realms of fantasy. As a respondent for the Kennedy Center, I also saw a production of She Kills Monsters: Virtual Realms from Sam Houston State that was realized by using 14 computers in 14 separate places in a theatre building, a true feat of timing and precision, but also of storytelling. Each of these three pieces of college theatre found new ways to tell stories, to overcome the frame by learning to transcend it.

While my first reaction was to resist theatre on my computer for any number of reasons, I find I embrace it more readily when I combine my affection for film with that of theatre. What we are seeing is neither medium, really, nor will it ever be, but that's ok: live theatre will return and film, especially on television, is experiencing growth, telling longer stories in anthology series. But for the time being, rather than mourning live theatre, I'm enamored with artists who are experimenting with the frame, its limitations and its inherent possibilities, to still share stories. Directors, designers, actors, dramaturgs—they are keeping theatre alive when, ironically, it's unsafe to be live.

And my responsibility as an audience member, as a lover of theatre, is to suspend disbelief once again.

Since I'm well past my childhood and experiencing an entirely new medium, suspending disbelief may require more work from me, but my affection for storytelling, in all of its new, myriad, creative formats, overcomes my nostalgia for all the conventions of theatre I've spent a lifetime growing to love. It's worth it.