05/15/2012 10:48 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

And the Walls Came A-Tumbalin' Down

Just like the great Berlin Wall fell in 1989, another great wall has fallen, reuniting us with theatre that is essential -- the fourth wall.


MONKEY BUSINESS by Tony Asaro (Composer/Librettist)

I learned much of what I know about theatre in my high school drama class: the parts of the stage, the basic terminology, what beats are, Character-Relationship-Objective-Where.

And, I learned that while cheating to the audience was a good thing, mugging for the audience was most certainly not.

Mugging -- [verb intrans.] to make faces, esp. silly or exaggerated ones, before an audience 

There was this thing called "the fourth wall" that existed, separating the world onstage from the real world of the audience.  An actor would break this fourth wall by directly addressing the audience.  This separates all theatre into two categories representational (fourth wall) and presentational (no fourth wall). And despite my long experience with musical theatre, a genre which is almost necessarily presentational, I think I've always inadvertently clung to "Presentational good. Representational bad."

I saw two shows this past week that have really made me reconsider this issue.  It's been somewhat of a revelation, in fact.  On Tuesday night, I saw Peter and the Starcatcher, and on Wednesday afternoon, I saw One Man, Two Guvnors. Both shows are very presentational. In Peter, the story is told to us on stage by a troupe of players (never self-identifying as actors) who portray all of the different parts, and using much slapstick, Commedia Delle'arte-style. 

One Man is a modern take on the first surviving recorded Commedia piece, A Servant of Two Masters.

Though I found Peter to be much more successful than One Man, however, one thing was clear to me in both shows: My experience watching these stories unfold onstage was not something I could get at home watching sitcoms on Hulu. Direct address is the one thing that theatre does better than film and TV. Filmed works are by definition ignorant of the audience in the moment, whereas presentational theatre exists only in that moment where the players connect to the listeners.  It is the reason why children, despite all of the programming on the Disney Channel and Nickelodeon, still want to be read stories.

Looking back, I realize that most of my favorite experiences in the theatre have been with presentational theatre: Wit, Mother Courage and her Children, The Pillowman, David Cromer's Our Town...  And my show Our Country (book by Dan Collins, and soon to be available on iTunes. Go to for more information) is overtly presentational.

Shakespeare is representational, so the great literary minds say. The long soliloquies in which the characters, alone onstage, reveal their secret plans are not presentational because they're speaking to themselves and not the audience. I've always kept quiet about my sedition until now: that argument is malarkey. Those speeches are for the benefit of the audience, and to pretend otherwise is delusion. Again, this argument caters to the doctrine of "Representational good. Presentational bad." Somehow, direct address to the audience is viewed as theatrical barbarism, and Shakespeare was much too literary for that, I suppose.

Shakespeare wrote at a time when addressing the audience was commonplace. Naturalism and realism came into existence hundreds of years later; theatre had been around for centuries before the fourth wall was ever erected. Ancient Greek theatre, Roman comedy, morality plays, Commedia Dell'Arte, restoration Comedy, comedy of manners... All of it existed long before Stanislavski and thrived!

What is the purpose of a wall? To separate my house from yours. To keep people out. In theatre, the fourth wall serves to distance the audience from what is happening onstage.

Like that story we read to a child, the story we tell on stage is a gift to the audience. Let's give that gift without remoteness. If there is no wall separating my house from yours, then perhaps everyone in the theatre at a performance, thespians and patrons, are all part of one house.
It seems to me that we, as theatre practitioners trying to survive in a world where theatre is becoming less and less relevant, should be playing to our strengths. The TV screen is an impenetrable fourth wall, successful in showing us a world, but never really inviting us in.  Live theatre has no such limitation. Maybe it's time to take down this cold fourth wall and return to a kind of theatre that really speaks to its audience, both literally and figuratively.

TONY ASARO is a composer/librettist currently working on various musical theatre and opera projects including the award winning Our Country.  To learn more about Tony's writing, please visit  NEVER STOP SWINGING!