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?)

1 comment:

Leanne said...

I recently went to a dance show where the blackouts were actually painful. I know you were discussing blackouts in theatre, which is very different from dance, but I felt this show was abusing blackouts, even more than dance shows normally do. It was a recital type show, so the blackouts were somewhat necessary in between dances. However I have seen and been part of dance shows that sparingly use blackouts and only when the dance needs to either begin or end with one. They often use transition music and an entrance dance to link each number together and therefore cut down on blackouts. This show on the other hand used a blackout between every number. And not only did they use these blackouts, but each blackout must have been 15 seconds long. You should not have time in a blackout to comment on the length… and then have it continue for another 10 seconds. In this show that happened multiple times. I could see the dancers on stage and ready to dance, but for some reason nothing was happening. I do not know if they were waiting for music or lights or both, but it doesn’t seem like they would need to wait for something between every number. Again, I know this was a little off topic being dance as opposed to theatre, but I felt it was related to your blackout complaint. (also you told me to comment and spark some intellectual discussion)