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On stage: stories on a human scale

Regular theatergoers know this. Some of the rest us forget it and need reminding. And some, unfortunately, don't know and have a great pleasure awaiting them: There's something special about live theater.

With a TV remote - especially one operating a cable box or a satellite dish - we're only a click away from an ocean of entertainment. Familiar stars appear on command. Movies of every flavor flood the channels; even the current blockbusters show up shortly after they hit movie screens.

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So why bother to get up from the recliner and get yourself to live theater? Doesn't the television-film industrial complex do a much better job of bringing us "theater" - and at less expense and effort for us?

While TV and the stage are both storytellers, both illusions posing as reality, they do it in substantially different ways.

"What is special about theater as a form of storytelling is that it's on a human scale," offers Ian McKellen, who stars in the current films "Apt Pupil" and "Gods and Monsters" but who is known more as a classically trained stage actor.

"It's not huge images on a massive screen, and images of people who are dead, or who certainly are not in the room with you," he told the Associated Press last week. "Actors on a stage are there. You're in the same space. That's why I don't like when the [theater] spaces get too big, and the voices are coming through microphones."

Theater, with actors moving about on a stage of a limited size, in front of scenery that is quite obviously not "real," are not trying to duplicate real life: They are trying to do much more, says Canadian novelist-playwright-critic Robertson Davies in a book of essays published posthumously this year ("Happy Alchemy: On the Pleasures of Music and the Theatre," Viking). More than in TV and film, where a close-up can wring meaning from a lifted eyebrow, theater is about language, Davies says, about the human voice and how it can convey our deepest thoughts. More than their on-screen counterparts, stage actors train their voices, much as singers do, learning to use phrasing, pitch, and tone to wring out meaning and send it to the back row.

In theater, it's language, not pictures, that counts. "It might be said that until he developed language man had no soul, for without language how could he reach deep inside himself and discover the truths that are hidden there, or find out what emotions he shared, or did not share, with his fellow men and women?" Davies writes in an essay he called "On Seeing Plays." "[W]e too often forget the splendour of which [language] is capable, and the pleasures that it can give, from the pen of a master.

"That is what we go to the theatre to rediscover."

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Whoa. Don't toss the remote out the window. Just a reminder that getting up close and personal with actors on a stage is something you won't match - even with a digital TV and surrounded by woofers, tweeters, and the rest - from your sofa.

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