Saturday, March 29, 2008

Ode to a Blackout

You get two posts this week - that's right. I have to make up for being such a slacker most of the rest of the time. Don't get accustomed to it.
Anyway, now for my Ode to a Blackout (many of you have heard early rantings on this subject). O, Blackout, how do I loathe thee? Let me count the ways.
Arguably the most over-used shortcut on the American stage today, the blackout is a plague attacking otherwise good (and often mediocre) theatre across the nation. Let me be clear, I do not refer to a play which requires complete darkness as an element of plot - Black Comedy comes to mind, in which a good portion of the story depends on being told in darkness (there is a power outage, or something). I guess I refer to the blackout as transitional device. The play needs to move from scene A to scene B, to get there, all the lights go briefly out, actors and possible technicians scurry in darkness - knocking into things, whispering - only to reset for lights up and the new scene. This is my first problem. Here I sit, interested, engrossed in the story maybe, wrapped up in the world of the characters and BOOM! Blackout. Pause. Removed from the engaging world of the story, to watching and listening to figures trip in the dark. I swear, I have almost yelled out, "We can see you!" But proper etiquette demands I ignore these interludes, that I sit quietly in limbo, perhaps to check my watch or examine my program, and enjoy the inevitable transition music. One too many blackouts, though, and even your most patient theatre-goer isn't going to stay with you for long, and your second act, or second scene in some cases, will play to empty seats, or the music of the program orchestra.
Putting aside the arcane game of hide-and-seek, my real problem with the blackout speaks to trends in American theatre that are far more disturbing - disrespect for the audience, disrespect for the medium and generally lazy, uncreative thinking.
First, there are cases when you see a blackout and you can almost hear the director whispering in your ear (if you are a neurotic snob like me, anyway) "this next scene takes place later, somewhere else. I just wanted that to be clear." As if the audience, dolts that we are, couldn't pick that up from a myriad of other clues, not the least of which is the script OR the fact that the scene follows the previous scene. I find this particularly maddening when there isn't even a change to set, but two characters switch position, or put on a different coat or something.
Now, before you get snippy, yes, there are plays that do not move sequentially, they move in reverse, or scatter shot through time. But, is a blackout really necessary to make those distinctions? I think not. I think if these directors had a little more faith in me and their storytelling ability, we would all be better off. This brings me to my third point (I'll get back to number 2) - maybe the director isn't thinking about me at all, because he or she isn't really thinking about it. The blackout has become a necessary convention, and how else are you supposed to get from A to B? The problem here, of course, is they aren't asking that question. They are not challenging the convention. They are allowing the crusts of about a century's worth of dust to cake around their brains and their productions. If we can't be cleverer about our transitions, is it any wonder our plays aren't any better? This is harsh, but come on, you can be smarter. Theatre is art, after all, this is an opportunity to showcase your creativity in all its glory.
Finally, to return to point two, blackouts feel like an apology for the medium. In film and TV we can be anywhere, actually there, instantly. People can be in a room, and quick cut, they aren't anymore. This is not a failing of theatre. It's not a failing of an apple that it wasn't designed for easy peeling, like a banana. Theatre is a different medium from film and TV, and the more live theatre attempts to be like film and TV, the more it will fail. Without any irony, there is a magic and wonder in live theatre that film and TV do not have. Namely you don't feel life through your TV screen - they try, with the things like mood music, to generate a similar feeling, but its not going to come close because it isn't live. Film and TV are more suited to "realism" - they can pull it off better. Don't despair that realism on stage is played out - its a fairly recent invention, and pretty much every other nation in the world has gotten over it. That's a rant for another day. Nonetheless, the blackout, those moments of hide-and-seek, only reinforce a filmic superiority in performance. Maybe if we focused on what we do well, instead of what works for film, we would be better off for a whole host of things.
So, in conclusion, the next time you are faced with an unnecessary blackout, write the director and ask why he or she hates you, theatre, and his or herself. (I'm kidding - don't actually do that. You get the point though, right?)

A Note About New Plays

See them. Always. Or, at least, whenever you can. This country needs more, good, new plays, but theatres are reluctant to do them because of you, yes YOU. They are afraid you won't come. So, prove them wrong.
You might want to keep your expectations...reasonable. Shakespeare got 400 years of workshop and performance to get it right, the play you are seeing only got about 4 weeks. Think of yourself as a pioneer, or even better, as part of the development process. Because you are. Playwrights learn more about their play from you than anyone else.
I deeply believe if Boston is ever going to become any kind of first-rate theatre town, we have to originate work here and export it. We are going to continue to be on the sidelines if we let other cities take the risks, test out the new material, and get the glory. Nothing ventured, nothing gained. I swear, if I see one more "Boston Premiere" of a recent-ish play from New York or Chicago or Seattle or Minneapolis or Atlanta...well, let's just not let that happen.

Saturday, March 8, 2008

Willy Don't Give A Damn

I need to rail. I have heard some silly, silly assumptions of late, and, while I am by no means an expert, I feel the need to rant my little knowledge here. Forgive the indulgence.
Shakespeare's plays were meant to be performed. They just were. So much so, that almost all the editions of the text we have were published posthumously by actors who played the roles. One reason for all those textual confusions (e.g. "too sullied flesh" vs. "too solid flesh"), prepare yourselves, is because sometimes actors mess up lines. In truth, without any hard evidence, I suspect the number of professional actors who are consistently letter perfect, never mind know an entire script years after they performed it, is quite small.
Shakespeare didn't intend for his plays to be read. He wrote plays cause he was pretty good at it and wanted to make a living, and when he made enough that he didn't have to work anymore, he stopped. The majority of his audience was likely illiterate anyway except for the people who paid him to write them sonnets. I'm sure he doesn't mind if you read his plays alone in your room to yourself. He might even be flattered, if he hadn't died 400 years ago, that is.
But the text is widely available, if you are upset with any stage productions you see. The "sanctity of the text" is protected in print and the millions of other productions happening around the world at this very moment. I mention again, the author and all his descendants of consequence are long since dead, so they don't mind either.
But, what of these productions? Why don't they do it like Shakespeare did? Well, this is a complicated question, so it requires a multiple part answer.
First, it was 400 years ago. We can't be sure how the plays were performed because we weren't there. None of us. For all you know, we are doing it EXACTLY like they did.
Second, based on what we think we know, some things have changed since then. It's no longer considered indecent for women to be seen on stage, so young boys no longer need to play women's roles. Most of our theatres are indoors and productions are accompanied by sets and lights. We are also more of a visual culture than the Elizabethans. As in, we believe they were able to take in information aurally much faster/better than we can, because that was pretty much the main form of communication. Therefore, the actors probably spoke a lot faster so, the plays were a lot shorter (there are several references in the plays about the play itself only being 2 hours long). This is to say nothing of the cultural changes - domestic abuse, antisemitism, and slavery aren't as funny as they used to be in popular culture. Contemporary productions often try to make the play relevant to today so it doesn't stand as a museum piece, which leads me to my next point.
Thirdly, the nature of live theatre is that it is never the same twice. It is temporal experience that experiences vast changes based on all kinds of things, most especially the audience. Therefore, it is impossible to do Shakespeare like Shakespeare did it. Even he was unable to do it the same way he did it.
Finally, after 400 years, don't you think the plays would get a little old if they were done EXACTLY the same way all the time. Part of why these plays have been so popular for so long is the room they allow for interpretation and experimentation.
Maybe you disagree. If that's the case, then you can sit in your room, alone, and read him to yourself. Willy don't give a damn.

A Post Script: I'm at a production of As You Like It a few years ago, and Rosalind comes to the edge of the stage and delivers the epilogue. The young woman behind me leans over to her companion and whispers, "I hate when they break the 4th wall." No one likes a nosy dramaturg, so you must suffer. The 4th wall is a late 19th - early 20th century invention. While the hallmark of most American theatre today, the notion that the characters on stage believed themselves to be real and living life in the world, unaware of the hundreds of people watching them was completely foreign to Elizabethans. You would be hard-pressed to ignore an Elizabethan audience, as they were generally loud, smelly and obnoxious. Willy makes fun of them and makes jokes specifically to them all the time. I believe that many characters motivations throughout the plays are to get the audience on his or her side before they do something terrible (Look at Richard III).
Thus endeth the lesson.