Surprise: how to get it.

Every day, I swim in a sea of media. Magazines, newspapers, blogs (like this one!) – I’m always on the lookout for shows to see and new movies to check out. While this means that I’ve discovered many new cool things, it’s all but eliminated one thing: the element of surprise.

I know roughly what the plot is of any show before I see it. I’ve read the previews, the reviews, the interviews. I’ve read the special feature on the playwright/actor/director, and sometimes all three. I know what I’m getting into before I commit myself to an evening of theater.

In many ways this is good – it’s a way to avoid crappy plays. But it’s also limiting. How many times have you seen a perfectly good film, but been disappointed because someone had told you it was the best movie ever? How many times and you liked a show better than you should, because you had such low expectations going in?

The lure of the new is implicit every time we go to see a show, but with all the media surrounding us, we are rarely surprised by what we see. We know that when it hits the two-hour mark, it’s going to start to resolve. You get into a certain mind-frame – for a comedy, you get in the right mood, and you prepare to have a certain reaction. It’s all… inauthentic. Instead of engaging with what’s actually happening on the stage, it all gets filtered through all you’ve read. Your experience has been mediated.

When you don’t know what’s coming , you have to be on edge all the time – you have to actually listen. You can judge a work based on what it actually is, and not on what you expect it to be.

Imagine the first audiences to ever see A Midsummer Night’s Dream. They didn’t know what they were getting into. During the opening scene with Theseus and Hipployta, the audience surely thought they were getting a classical drama. Then in come the lovers, and the audience thinks “Oh, it’s turned into a romantic comedy.” Then come the groundlings, and the audience thinks “Hmm – maybe it’s a farce.”
Then come the fairies, and the audience is well and truly confused.

I had that feeling last weekend. I went to see the Brave New World Play Festival. Five plays – all of them new. And I had no idea what to expect. I didn’t know what was coming next. When the first piece started, I had to figure out – is this a comedy, or a tragedy? Are these events meant to be literal, or metaphorical?

Imagine that confusion, and surprise, and delight every time you went to see a show.

You never get that seeing an Oscar Wilde play. At least, I don’t. I sit there waiting for my favorite lines to come, anticipating how they might be said. And I don’t really pay attention to the action; I know what’s coming, after all.

Off-off-Broadway shows offer a unique way around that. There are so many tiny plays that you stand a chance of never having heard of most of them.

Here’s s prescription for surprise:

Next Friday night, take a $20 bill and a book and head to the East Village. Go to the Kraine Theater on East Fourth Street and ask if they still have tickets for the 8 o’clock show. Do not ask the name of the show. If they’re sold out, walk across the street to La Mama. If they’re sold out, walk up to the Theater Under St. Marks, or PS 122. Wherever you wind up, just buy a ticket and take your seat. Read your book. Do not read the program. When the show starts, watch it.

I won’t lie: you will see some crap if you follow this advice. But it will be new crap, authentic crap, and you can have an honest, unfiltered reaction to what the work actually says, and not just what you expected to see.

Or go to new play festivals. This may be best, because if one show is bad, you don’t have to sit through it for very long. The next Brave New World Play Festival runs May 20-22 at Clemente Soto Velez Cultural Center (107 Suffolk Street, 8pm, $10). I’ve seen it. But I’m not telling you what it’s like. Go be surprised.

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