Coming Back for More: Repeated Theatrical Viewings

02/01/2012 02:22 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2012

How often do you watch your favorite movie? Each time you pop it into the DVD player or stream it on your computer, you feel content and comfortable with the now familiar storyline. The repeat performance allows you to look forward to parts you like, or to notice things you did not before, all the while knowing that you are watching a fixed and finished product. But what about our favorite theatrical shows, where even the same cast never gives the same performance twice?

I'll admit it, I get crushes on shows. In these past couple of months I have had the privilege of being able to see some of my favorites more than once. In fact, recently I have seen Sleep No More and The Complete & Condensed Stage Directions of Eugene O'Neill: Vol. 1 Early Plays/Lost Plays each four times, and UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW twice. I have spent more than enough time writing about that first show, and the impossibility of seeing the same narrative twice in a row makes it less interesting to me in this particular case than those other two.

I would like to take some time to talk about why we go back to the same show, especially one that offers us a slight permutation of our original experience. In other words, going back to Sleep No More makes logical sense because there is no way that you've seen everything (I still haven't seen everything!), yet I voluntarily go back to shows that ostensibly replicate the same performance night after night. The question comes down to this: am I going back to see the same thing, or to see what is different?

The answer is a bit of both. I do treat these shows somewhat like my favorite movies in the sense that the overall feeling I get when I see them brings me back for more (I'm a bit of an affective theatre junkie in that sense... and probably every other sense). Yet, as I once said to some of the New York Neo-Futurists, I love the sense that I can discern some things about these shows that make me feel more like an "insider." Anyone who has done theatre knows that there are nights when things go differently, or just plain wrong, and part of what makes the run of a show exciting is having the opportunity to react spontaneously to these changes. Seeing a show one time does not allow the average audience member to see these moments, but repeat viewings give you a baseline and highlight these fantastic instances of live theatre.

In this way seeing a show again (and again) illuminates one of the purest joys of live theatre, which is this unpredictability. I'll give you an example. The third time I saw Complete & Condensed (which was for review), the hilarious actors who play sharks in "Thirst" had made themselves shark-fins for their hands. I knew that these were new, and I was delighted when Lauren Sharpe made reference to this surprise later on in a section of ad-lib for "Bound East for Cardiff" by saying "They made baby shark hands, they really got me." This was funny by itself, but my previous knowledge made this even funnier because I knew exactly how new and unexpected this really was.

On the other hand, there is also an aspect of exploration through repetition that draws me into shows. This is certainly the case with UNTITLED FEMINIST SHOW, in which I felt that my first viewing was so mind-blowing that I needed to see it again to see what other clever connections and layers I had missed. Sure enough, my second experience was even more awe-inspiring, and it is a testament to the intelligence of and the excellent performance in this show that I feel like I have only scratched the surface. In this case I felt both the glee of being able to feel the rush of seeing this dynamic piece of theatre and the simultaneous sadness at knowing that I will not have the opportunity to see it again.

In all of these cases, seeing a piece of art more than once teaches me something about both the piece of work and myself. I notice what I am drawn to in each iteration of these shows, while I simultaneously realize that there is something special about the show itself that makes me feel like I need to see it again, like there is something left for this piece to teach me. This is what theatre should strive for: to create something that makes us want to come back for more.