'This is Us': An Honest Look at the Theater

Erin Fossa

OnStage North Carolina Columnist

It’s everyone’s new favorite obsession. One of those shows you watch just to torture your emotions. It’s NBC’s hit drama This is Us, and females (and males!) everywhere are binge watching it to have a good cry. 

There is one aspect of this show, however that does not induce unnecessary heartache and ugly cries, and that is one character’s experience with the theater. In case you’ve never seen it, Kevin, played by Justin Hartley, is a film actor who dives into the world of live theater head first. He auditions for his first play off Broadway in New York City and is cast immediately because of his popularity on television. He of course cultivates relationships throughout the process that further exacerbate the drama. Watching the episodes where he auditions, rehearses, and performs in the play, I found myself shaking my head, getting offended, being defensive, and finally… admitting how true it all is. 

The first thing that struck me was the blatant stereotypes used. The director Kevin auditions for, the playwright, and the actress he encounters at his audition are all total theater snobs. They have a painfully judgmental air towards Kevin because he is a television actor and doesn’t know anything about live theater. As he fumbles through the audition they roll their eyes. They look incredibly annoyed. And the actress is arrogant and rude towards him. The director is a gray-haired little man with dark-rimmed glasses sitting in a dark theater, clearly annoyed by Kevin’s tardiness for the audition. 

As the show progresses, the actress ultimately seduces Kevin for her own personal reasons. She uses their stage romance as fuel for a love affair that is anything but real to her. Unsuspecting Kevin gets hurt and she continues on her selfish way. And as I watched all this happen I couldn’t help but think, what an awful representation of theater! These characters are so stereotypical! 

I was outraged. 

And then I realized… this is unfortunately pretty accurate. 

First of all, don’t we often turn up our noses at those who don’t “get it” when it comes to our art? I know I do. When it comes to working with those who are new to acting or theater in general, I often run out of patience very quickly even if I don’t let it show. And aren’t we known for being intolerable of tardiness, particularly at auditions where you’re expected to put your best foot forward? We pride ourselves on how much we despise lateness and may even punish for it. 

And then, as I thought back over my entire experience with theater, I thought of several instances where sexual encounters between cast members offstage were justified as being “for the good of the show” or excused because the onstage chemistry blurred the lines between reality and fiction, which is pretty much what happened in the show. Sexual tension is a character both onstage and off, I think we all would admit. Her character is fictional, but she is based on something very real. Watching the show, my husband shook his head and said (jokingly of course), “You theater people…” 

 I immediately jumped on the defensive. 

That doesn’t really hap…! 

And then I stopped. Because instantly, two specific instances entered my mind where it DID happen. Not with me personally, but with my closest friends at the time. Onstage romances blending into off, in a very irresponsible way. Be honest, have you seen it? 

We cannot deny our faults as a community and how they are perceived by the rest of the world. This show touched a nerve in my theater-loving heart. 

So after forgiving the blatant theater cliches, I started to really appreciate the way the show represented theater. In a conversation Kevin has with his potential castmate, she defends live theater saying, “It’s hard. It’s so hard. It’s not pretend. It’s not Guys and Dolls in some high school cafeteria… If you really wanna do this, then go home, find a class, get some training.”  

And all the (theater) people said, Amen! 

And then came the clincher. At the end of episode 5, Kevin tells his nieces about his unique way of preparing for a role- painting how it makes him feel. He presents them with an abstract painting that is his interpretation of the play and of life. The colors, the lines, all weave together to form an intricate story- his story. He ends by saying, “This right here. This is us.” 

What a beautiful picture of how the interpretation of a piece of art can change our thoughts on life. Interpreting art can give us a new perspective on who we are in the big picture. Reading the play prompted Kevin to use fine arts to see the world through new eyes and then share that with a younger generation. And isn’t that the part of theater that is unique to our art? The ability to read a story about fictional characters and have it change our thoughts on life. We don’t devote our lives to being on stage because we love the attention, we do it because we love stories, and we hope that our audiences do the same examination of their lives after they leave our performance. 

Anyone can read or write words on a page. An artist turns them into a commentary on life. An actor takes a story and brings it to life so that the audience can decide for themselves how to view life. Essentially, we are taking stories and saying, “This is our life. Like it or not, this is us.” 

The creators of this show clearly get that. And I personally want to thank them for their honest representation of theater in this wildly popular show. They are highlighting the good and the bad for us and essentially saying, “Hey artists, this is us.”  I think we would be served by taking a good look at their observations.