There’s a term in theater that describes the imaginary wall between the actors and the audience. A typical proscenium stage (think your high school auditorium) has three sides (the left, right, and back), but the fourth side is open. This is where the audience looks into the story. There’s not really a separation between the audience and the actors, but in theater, we silently agree to believe there is.
Occasionally, a character breaks the fourth wall. This means the character speaks directly to–even interacts with–the audience. Sometimes, the character (or actor) even says something that acknowledges they are part of a fiction. The audience and the actors know that it’s all pretend, but neither expect it to be made explicit.
We do a lot of pretending outside of the theater, too. Sometimes we know it, sometimes we don’t. Either way, we are agreeing to it. We might be part of one group that excludes another. We might fail to ask questions when something just doesn’t add up. We might continue with a tradition just because “it’s how we do things,” never examining the tradition’s source. We might believe what we are told rather than investigating other sources. It’s easier to stick with a conventional script.
If you have ever been in an audience when an actor or character breaks through the fourth wall and speaks directly to the audience, you may have an idea of how the audience responds. Usually, no one’s ready for it. Most people watch with a certain uneasiness, wanting to enjoy this new turn in the play but unsure how to handle the unexpected. Occasionally a few sit up straighter or excitedly respond if the actors says something that calls for a response. I think the majority are relieved when the character retreats back into the story.
If you have ever tried to point out something that doesn’t add up about the “way we do” or the “way we think” or the “way we believe,” you may have encountered a similarly uneasy reaction. Some people will be genuinely interested and will consider your ideas. Some will listen, but remain unaffected. Many will shut their eyes and ears and wish you back into a story they can understand.
But please, don’t let that stop you from pushing through that fourth wall. Because this isn’t pretend. This is real life. And however silently your audience ponders what you have to say, someone is listening.
I write this to myself as much as I write it to you.