by Leslie Simon
Traced back to ancient Greece, metatheatre is used as a way to break the rules, expanding what theatre is, making it more immersive, and engaging the audience more deeply. Metatheatre draws attention to the fact that the audience is watching theatre, and the nature that entails.
Metatheatre can also be used to prove political points, and express opinions that may get you in trouble for speaking aloud. In medieval times, metatheatrical devices were employed as a way to satirize the Church without getting in trouble with the King. By the Renaissance, playwrights such as William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe were using it to subvert audience expectations.
The term metatheatre was coined in 1963 by Lionel Abel, but utilizing it on stage has been happening since Shakespeare and beyond. Abel considered Don Quixote to be the protoypical metatheatrical character, where the character is aware of their own theatricality. You may have heard the term “breaking the fourth wall” before. Instead of the world of the play being observed by the audience, the characters of the play are also observing the audience.
In the world of Our Town, characters reference that they know they are in a play. They know the audience is there, and that they are in a theatre building telling you a story. Much like Ferris Bueller talking to the camera in the film Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, Our Town employs many devices of “metatheatre” to reference itself or circumstances in the play, and was one of the first American plays to really do this.
An audience member reads a line in our production of Our Town, McLeod9 Creative
These self-aware tactics delight audiences by keeping them on their toes and enriching the narrative of the story. Listen to Our Town director Geoffrey Kent discuss metatheatre:
In the Arvada Center’s production of Our Town, audiences have been able to experience a unique form of metatheatre. Due to COVID in the cast, understudies have had a chance to shine, with one even reading from the script while performing! For those of you who have seen Our Town, what were some interesting aspects of metatheatre that you enjoyed?
Geoffrey Kent as the Stage Manager, McLeod9 Creative
Some Metatheatre Terms:
Aside: Character speaks directly to the audience (in character or not) but the other characters don’t hear it. Usually a brief comment explaining something complicated in the story.
Breaking the fourth wall: The fourth wall is the invisible wall between the characters and the audience, where the characters do not know the audience exists. When breaking the fourth wall, characters are aware of the audience
Induction: An explanatory scene where a character has their own opinion or moralizes about the play itself (popular with Shakespeare i.e. Puck speaking to the audience)
Prologue: A story before the play that establishes context and gives additional details, popularized in Greek drama
Embedded Narrative: A story-within-a-story, often mirrors or comments on the main story (i.e. A Midsummer Night’s Dream)
Distancing Effect: Also known as Verfremdungseffekt or the alienation effect and credited to German playwright Bertolt Brecht.