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What live theater offers that nothing else can

Erin Barlow, John Taflan and Ezekiel Sulkes in the Hypocrites' All Our Tragic
Photograph: Evan Hanover Erin Barlow, John Taflan and Ezekiel Sulkes in the Hypocrites' All Our Tragic

As the third annual Chicago Theatre Week (week and a half, really) gets underway, the big question for regular theatergoers is which shows to sample. (Need some guidance? Check out my picks and get tickets at ChicagoTheatreWeek.com.)

But for novice audience members—the tentative attendees Chicago Theatre Week's discount offers and heavy promotion are arguably meant to reach—the more apt question might be: Why go see theater in the first place?

1. Trade "RealD" for real 3-D.
Hollywood has spent the last decade or more on headache-inducing tech and dorky plastic glasses to trick our eyes into seeing Spider-Man swinging toward us. (Okay, maybe Spidey's not the best example here.) But there's no 3-D more real than being in the same room as the live action.

2. Share a communal experience.
"Communal" may sound like hippie talk, but any stage actor will tell you a particular audience's energy can affect a performance. The opposite is also true, not to mention the way you connect with your fellow audience members. The Hypocrites' day-long All Our Tragic (which returns in June) was for me only an extreme reminder of an experience that's true at every show. When was the last time you gave a standing ovation at the movies?

3. Try on a new perspective.
TV series can give us years-long dives into character and POV camera shots, but I'd argue there's no more immediate way into an unfamiliar point of view than connecting with a character in real time and space. Theater can be a direct line to empathy.

4. The variations are endless.
It looks like we're going to get yet another Spider-Man origin movie (that guy again!). But far more interesting than endless movie reboots are stage revivals: One of the great pleasures of becoming a regular theatergoer is seeing how many fascinating interpretations the classics can—or can't—support.

5. Expect the unpredictable.
On a return visit to the Second City e.t.c.'s Apes of Wrath a few weeks ago, I watched cast member Eddie Mujica, in an audience-interaction bit, find himself nearly trapped by a guy who seemed to think once an actor had spoken to him, he could take over the show. Mujica deftly escaped, but for a gut-wrenching—and thrilling—moment, I couldn't look and couldn't look away. It was a bracing reminder that even when everything goes right, in live performance, no two performances are exactly alike.

Check out our guide to Chicago Theatre Week, February 12–22, and tell us your reasons for attending live theater in the comments.

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