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Tell Me on a Sunday: Suspension of Disbelief

Part of the magic of theatre is the magic of it all. It is the willing suspension of disbelief that people express themselves through song and dance, that things outside of reality, societal norms, and logic could happen and we root for them. Of course there is the other factor that you are going to see incredibly talented people perform skills that they have honed over years, but in the end if you don’t buy into the story and the characters then you are there for a concert. Don’t get me wrong, concerts are amazing and count as superb live performances, but they are very different than going to the theatre.

(Spoilers Ahead)

In my opinion the most wonderful thing about live performance is that the audience is going on this journey with the characters, as the characters are experiencing them. To become caught up in the story and become a participant in the plot is part of the overall experience that you want upon purchasing the ticket. If the audience doesn’t believe that the character is actually experiencing things as they happen in front of the audience, then where is the emotional hook? Why then do we cry when a character is disappointed or cheer when the star crossed lover’s get together? I have been to shows where at the end of a particularly poignant scene or song where the audience members were awash in tears or laughter. That can only happen if there is belief in some aspect of the situation being presented to us.

When Eponine lies dying in the arms of her unrequited love at the end of Les Miserables, there is rarely a dry eye in the house. When Chris falls to his knees wailing “Nooo!” at the curtain of Miss Saigon I was sobbing and so were the people around me. It is the belief in the story and the characters being presented to us that makes these moments so affecting.

This brings me to my point (I know, finally, right?). How easy is it for you to suspend your disbelief when you are watching a show? A key part of being able to give these characters their reality is the ability to believe in their world. Usually I am able to believe everything from the moment the curtain rises. I completely buy into the fact that the only ay for these people to fully express themselves is in song and through dance. I even fully build their world and other characters into the story. For example, you never see Maria’s parents in West Side Story, even thought they are referenced as being around. I try to imagine how awkward it would be for Maria to talk to them after the curtain goes down.

Papa: “So let me get this straight. Your brother brought us here for a better life and he was the leader of a gang. And then you fell in love and slept with the rival co-leader of the gang! All of this led to his death and the death of the guy you love. Do I have this right?”

Maria: “Um.. yes. But I was in love! The fighting was wrong! I am sorry they are dead but maybe now we can all live in peace”.

Pap: “ Yeah right. Tell me please how we are to support ourselves now that your brother is gone?” (Also, what did Bernardo do to earn money for all those fancy suits??)

Maria: “I’m giving up on the institution of marriage and…..I think I’d like to become a teacher”. (This is why Juliet had to die alongside Romeo, the follow up afterward would make no sense whatsoever)

(Does this make me crazy? …don’t answer that!) To me these stories do not exist in a vacuum, they are a small sliver of the world that they inhabit. So therefore the stories go on before and after the small part that we see. Only if the show is truly not engaging, or a performance is so bad that it pulls me out of what I am watching and I start to wonder how the lighting is being programmed or what the stage manager is doing right this moment.

Do you easily slip into your suspension of disbelief? Or does it take you a few songs/scenes to get into everything?

Do you accept what is presented to you or do you expand upon it in your head?

Are plays easier or harder than a musical for you to suspend disbelief?

Or am I wrong, do you not need to suspend disbelief at all?

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