Why is Theatre so Comforting?
Updated: Apr 27, 2022
According to The Mental Health Foundation, ‘engaging in arts, social activities and interaction within our communities can help with major challenges such as aging and loneliness. It can help boost confidence and make us feel more engaged and resilient. Besides these benefits, art engagement also alleviates anxiety, depression and stress’
If engagement with the arts, such as going to see a theatre, can be deemed as good for our mental health, it’s really no surprise that I find it such an escape from reality, a couple of hours away from the stress and the worries of the real world. You could go and ask any theatre fan about how they feel when they go and see a show, and you would get similar responses. A feeling of joy, of happiness, of escapism and enjoyment, but more often than not, you might also get told something about being part of a community, a shared experience. Theatre brings together people from all walks of life and allows them to share in an unrepeatable moment, for no show is ever the same.
Every theatre fan has their favourite show, a production that they could go back to again and again without ever getting bored, despite knowing what is going to happen. We often hear people talking about comfort shows when it comes to television, a show that you could watch over and over, whether that be sitting down and focussing on it entirely or having it on in the background whilst doing other things. In a way the comfort comes from knowing exactly what is going to happen, a relief from the unknown twists and turns that everyday life can throw at you, and you can apply the same idea to the theatre fans that want to see the same production over and over again. Nevertheless, there is a slight difference. A recorded television show can never change, whereas theatre is always different, even if the production is the same. You have different cast members, each bringing something new to a character, things can go wrong, choreography can change and even where you sit in the auditorium can provide an entirely new angle on a show that you may know inside and out.
For those who can easily go and enjoy the same production over and over again, what is it that keeps them going back? I think I speak for a lot of theatre fans when I say that witnessing live performance is addictive and something that you just sometimes need to keep going. Live performance fuels a sense of adrenaline, a thrill that you can’t quite find anywhere else, but it can also be a great comfort to many. I’ve been there myself; I’ve been asked why I keep going back to the same shows, and sometimes find myself struggling to say anything more than the basic ‘because I like it’. Being a repeat attender is sometimes really hard to explain for multiple reasons. One, no performance of the same show is ever exactly the same, that’s live theatre for you. Two, there is a certain thrill and excitement in seeing a show that you completely and utterly adore and three, there is an element of comfort in that show that you love, like a warm hug or a sensation of going home.
So, what is it about certain shows that just does it for some people? What keeps them going back? What is their comfort show? I reached out to my fellow theatre fans and asked them exactly that.
From the pure theatrical magic that is the Lion King, with it’s incredible opening that truly showcases the wonder of live performance, to the joy and happiness of Mamma Mia, or the thrill of Les Miserables, or the true life reminder of the good in the world that is Come from Away, countless shows over the years have become a comfort show to many a fan, the show that they simply can’t stay away from for too long. 42nd Street, Hamilton, Wicked, Kinky Boots, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, &Juliet, Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Half A Sixpence, The Book of Mormon, Back to the Future, the list goes on and on.
Kelly-Louise Mitchell states ‘Wicked will always be one of my comfort shows. I’ve seen better shows since, but it was the first one I ever saw on the West End, so it is very nostalgic. The words of ‘For Good’ also resonate with me because, because, although not strictly written for that meaning, they were a big comfort to me when I recently lost some family members. It changed me as a person. Wicked has left its handprint on my heart’. On the subject of Wicked, Tom Codd adds ‘I saw Wicked multiple times (maybe about 15 times) during the year I lived in London. I was in a very stressful teaching job and was feeling down, unsupported, and pressured. Wicked was my comfort blanket throughout that time – there were multiple days when I would book a last-minute ticket after work and head straight to the theatre to enjoy the show. It would provide escapism, light heartedness, and joy. It made me smile every time. It gave me the opportunity to breathe and be free, and every time I left the theatre, I would feel so much more positive about life. I’ve seen Wicked 44 times in total and Defying Gravity never gets old’
For Kryie Gemma Baldwin, it’s The Phantom of the Opera that brings her great comfort. She says that ‘the show brings me comfort because the characters are relatable, the music is magical and I feel like I am in an alternative world when watching it, it’s like I can relax and let myself feel everything the show wants the audience to feel whether it be happiness, sadness, fear, or concern. I know I will feel all of this and more when I see this beautiful show’
Coline Raviart and Denise Schult agree that Mamma Mia is one of the many shows that provide escapism and comfort to the masses with Coline stating that it was ‘the first show I ever got the chance to see with my mom. Our seats were at the very back row, so we spent the whole show dancing together! One of my happiest memories that made me become the crazy theatre fan I am’. Denise adds ‘Mamma Mia is sunlit, fun, funny and pure escapism with fabulous songs. I have seen it 9 times and just love the colour and the joy that exudes from the stage’
From a personal point of view, I have to agree with what Stephen Creighton says about Half a Sixpence. He believes that ‘it always warmed the coldest of times and days. You could have the worst day going but seeing this show would fill you with happiness and have you grinning from ear to ear whilst humming the songs on your way home’. I saw this show ten times, and absolutely loved every minute of it every time, and even know it’s a great comfort to me to just sit and listen to the music.
Megan Hugo praises the escapism factor of Magic Goes Wrong and The Play That Goes Wrong, stating that Magic Goes Wrong is a ‘total escape, can sit and smile and laugh and be mesmerised for 2.5 hours, each show is different from the one before with audience interaction elements and the Thunderstudies. The show saved me so I owe it to them to support it as much as possible’
Theatre fan Alan Hughes might hold some sort of record for his trips to Les Miserables, having seen it 1698 times in 36 years. He states that it is ‘his go to show no matter what if I’m happy or sad as it helps me with both’. He believes that it resonates with many because ‘it’s full of both sadness and happiness throughout which many of us have been through in some form of life, sadness, poverty, happiness and loss’. Anne Lynes agrees stating that Les Miserables ‘gets me every time’
Tea Robinson states that knowing the plot of the movie is a comfort with Back to the Future, and that it has become a comfort show because of the warmth and the music has a wide range of styles within the meaning that it can be listened to constantly. Another theatre fan, Ingo Weighardt, tells us that his favourite show of all time is Chess, partly for the hilarious song ‘One Night in Bangkok’ but also because it covers some of his favourite topics such as the cold war.
Leah Bransby’s favourite show is The Book of Mormon, stating that the production changed her life. She joined the Mormon church through meeting missionaries at the show and has handwritten tattoos from the UK Tour cast.
A wide range of shows provide comfort for a wide range of theatre fans, and that comfort is just one of the many things that could lead people to seeing the same show many times. Theatre can change lives, can give people escapism and provide them with a source of joy that they may struggle to find elsewhere.
What is your comfort show?
Images found via Google, not my own