“How Lockdown Taught Me to Talk About Theatre to Extra-terrestrials”

Lawrence Bommer in Chicago
How Lockdown Taught Me How to Talk about Theatre to Extra-terrestrials


When they come, we must be ready — and not with glib approximations. Our alien visitors will want to know everything about us.They will want honest answers, especially about theatre. It’s wrong to fool an inquisitive extra-terrestrial. They came this far because they care.

As the not-so-top-secret Roswell files disclose, past star trekkers have been especially interested in why we act out in front of paying strangers. (Their planets, which are extremely humourless and literal, consider make-believe a dangerous distraction; “playing” at anything is strictly forbidden.)

But theatre defines earthlings — and it may well end up defending us too.

Because we terrestrials should share our best with our new friends, here are 14 safe answers to the burning questions that ET may ask about the stuff he sees on stage.

Why are these funny people under the bright lights pretending to be people they’re not?

Because audiences have fun when they’re fooled, Remulon Centauri. Adult humans need to pretend even more than do the little ones at bedtime. “Tell me a story!” becomes “Tell me a plot!”

So, the actors portray people who they’re not, and the rest of us sit in the dark and play along. That’s why it’s called a “play”. Anyway, the programme tells you who they really are, so you can’t say you weren’t warned about this massive deception that we all enjoy.

We play too, as we dodge light sabres, asteroids, and wormholes. Am I in a play?

You are! It’s called ”life”and usually has bad improvisation, no script, and very few do-overs. Often the settings are better than the stories.

Why do humans keep changing the furniture from scene to scenes?

Because people in play-land only live in one“room”— the stage — so they’re always changing things to pretend that there are a lot more!

Why are they allowed to lie on stage but not off?

Because theythey can get away with it and the other humans want them to – unlike in real life (well, except for love). That’s why it’s called “make-believe”or “suspension of disbelief.” We pretend they’re real while they make things up

Why do these humans suddenly start singings?

In a musical, people feel things so much more powerfully than in real life.They just have to burst into a ballad and, happily, an orchestra is always right there to help them! But sometimes a show triggers a song before it’s justified.That’s happened a lot lately and it’s called “unearned emotion”. Can you sing Defying GravityGravity?

Can the actors hear us as they act?

Yes, they can hear you, so be quiet and turn off your intercosmic handsets! This is not TV. it’s two-way and in real-time. It’s not even a streaming video on your intergalactic computer. It’s only interactive if you’re on stage and your name is in the programme.

That actor really thinks he’s funny. So why aren’t people laughing?

Because the actor reallyreally thinks he’s funny. So, he’s not tryingtrying to be funny, and we are not amused … If you stare at a banana peel, you’ve lost the right to trip over it.

Someone died and that made everyone sad. Right?

Death, as you know from living in the Magellan Cloud, is the one non-negotiable “force” in the universe. Sadly, humans often watch people die for entertainment. lf they thought it was a rehearsal, it would quickly lose its appeal. As actors can tell you, there are many ways to die on stage: sometimes thatthat afterlife can be more miserable than a dirt nap.

Why do humans make a funny sound by clapping?

Because both humans and seals like to slap their flippers to show their pleasure — either in a fish they’ll eat, or at how they spent their entertainment money. They let the other humans know that they’re awake and appreciate what kept them from sleeping.

ls this make-believe a lot like the bedtime stories we enjoy in the Vega Quadrant?

Theatre is exactly like bedtime stories, except that for humans it’s not sleep that follows fiction — it’s death.

Can I make the bad man stop hurting the others? Should I penetrate the fourth wall?

No, the bad man will keep doing nasty things until the good man stops him. Both are just following orders — also called a “script”. You cannot play God, that’s the playwright’s prerogative.You must sit there, helpless to intervene, and wonder what you’d do in “real life” if confronted with the same choices. This is one reason why
guns are not allowed in theatres, except in Minnesota and the South.

Why do they stop the show when it’s not over?

That’s because most bipeds have to effect urination after 100 minutes. Anyway, a theatre needs to sell concessions and the playwright needs to hang things over a cliff. At the most expensive theatres, the patrons need to schmooze, close deals, touch base, and network every hour or so. Sometimes they leave.

Why are some seats empty when the lights go down?

Because some mean folks called “critics” did not like it and wrote nasty things the next day about the make-believe. Or else some stupid late-comers are delaying their entrance in order to spoil our collective concentration.

How do we know when it’s over?

You’ll know when we start flapping our flippers …

So, Remulon, now you see that theatre is what makes beings human. It lets us create alternatives to real life, which is often nasty, brutish, and short. It lets us imagine ourselves as better than we are so that we may slowly become so. It brings social issues down to earth and fleshes out abstract problems so they seem solvable. If we couldn’t tell stories with our bodies, we would be psychologically illiterate. But theatre lets us dream with our eyes open, and we never want to wake up from that.

Now, isn’t it time to call home?