When theater is a joke. Or vice versa.

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There’s a fine line between a practical joke and engaging theater.

This video (courtesy of the always entertaining Mind the Gap blog) documents an elaborate prank the likes of which could only be organized in the name of global commerce and fermented barley beverages. 1,000 soccer fans were forced to miss a championship game by their bosses or girlfriends, and instead attend (i.e. suffer) a concert of classical music.

It pains me to see classical music as the butt of the joke, and the enthusiasm of the crowd when the match starts up makes me squirm a little. How must the poor string quartet have felt, hearing a crowd start cheering at the realization that they’re about to shut the hell up?

But what a divine bit of experiential theater. I wish the video did a more accurate job of portraying how things actually went down when the reveal was made (I sense a pretty heavy editorial hand in this clip). How quickly did different members of the audience catch on? How quickly did they start abandoning expected concert protocol? When did the beer start pouring?

I can think of some other examples of such extreme context switching in real performance situations. John Fisher’s Medea the Musical starts out as an ultra campy gay rendition of the Euripides yarn for a good 15 minutes before the director stops the show and you realize that you’re actually watching a play within a play about a gay theater company’s campy production of the Euripides yarn. Similar hijinks occur in Noises Off.

A lot of great theater is about the setting up of expectations and the twist, the surprise, the sudden reveal that makes you reconsider and reevaluate everything you had experienced up until then. But these are examples of a special kind of twist. This isn’t the story twist that you’ll often find in thrillers (Hannibal Lecter’s amazing escape scene in Silence of the Lambs is a great example), but an experiential twist. A twist that isn’t contained in the character’s world, but leaks into the audience’s world and their understanding of what they’re actually experiencing.

But if theater depends on a series of lies, an elaborate ruse, perhaps events that create disorienting moments when the “joke” is revealed are more honest than the ones that never acknowledge the lie.

Either way, Theater definitely kicked the stuffing out of Music in this video. But I’m pretty sure Music was payed good money to take a dive.

ps – My soccer hooligan friend Shona just informed me that the reveal is actually in the music. ┬áThe quartet starts playing the “Champion League Anthem”, which is apparently recognizable by any fan. There’s a surge of applause in there that doesn’t really make sense unless you recognize the song.

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