The Necessity of Theatre by P. Woodruff

In his book, The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched, Woodruff defines theatre in the broadest possible terms. He states that theatre is the art of making human action worth watching. True theatre in not something you are happy to see on TV – but an event where YOU JUST HAVE TO BE THERE. Theatre has an essential function in society, along with religion and language, because it creates a sense of cultural belonging. It is theatre that connects us to our humanity as we learn to witness and be witnessed. Important theatrical events, outside the traditional art theatre, include:

  • Weddings
  • Sports Games
  • Graduations
  • Inaugurations
  • Lectures

The book goes into detail about what makes good theatre, including example plots and characters from classic plays and the non traditional. In his examination of characters he defines human actions (vs. animal actions) in more detail. It’s interesting to note the delicate balance required to make a character worthy of our attention. They must be believable in their behavior and yet show enough free will to keep the audience interested. An audience enjoys watching conflict and resolution, but the resolution can’t be too predictable. Even a true life theatrical event, such as a wedding, holds some possibility of intrigue until the vows are witnessed and complete.

Woodruff also includes sacred space in Theatre. Can theatre, the art of making human action worth watching, include sacred space and still remain a human action? I think it’s possible that Woodruff sees only the similarity of ritualistic device used in sacred space and does not consider the spiritual element fully. Space in theatre is a device used in order to distinguish the watcher from the watched. Sacred space connects the Watcher to the watched. I see how to include theatre in sacred space, but by his definition, I do not see how to include sacred space in theatre without also saying God is human.

For me anything relating to the Divine mysteries of life exists in a realm outside of what it means to be human. I figure there are as many perspectives on the matter of God and religion as there are people. Below is a short narrative describing a non traditional sacred space and theatre combo.


She stood in line, with others at the party, patiently waiting for a tarot reading. The small crowd gathered and watched, curious about what was happening. Emotions erupted inexplicable as cards were laid out in a predictable pattern across a silk cloth. Each session ended as the last card was turned over and the pattern completed. Finally, it was her turn, the chair before her was empty. The reader beckoned her to sit. It began like all the other sessions before hers. She knew her role was to pick up the cards, shuffle them 3 times, divide the deck in half with her left hand and then listen. The reader consolidated the cards, turned over the top card, placed it face up on the silk cloth and interpreted the meaning. Listening to the message she felt a shock at how personal and relevant the information was as each card revealed itself. Time passed quickly, the session drew to a close, the last card was put down and the pattern was complete. She got up from the table, making room for the next in line, and headed off to share her mystical experience with friends.

Can you think of a time when you were being witnessed or were a witness? How did it make you feel? It is something I have experienced and enjoyed in many ways – and not enjoyed in other ways. The book, The Necessity of Theater: The Art of Watching and Being Watched, is packed full of valuable information and I will be reading this one again in the future.