Truth in Advertisting?
Theatre is sometimes just as guilty as your average multi-billion dollar conglomerates when it comes to shearing the sheep we have all become as a consuming public.
We have all experienced sexy advertising for plays such as Miss Julie, or Twelfth Night, or any number of classics or new works, only to find ourselves trapped in our seats watching another serviceable, but safe and reserved production.
Brandon Kiley of Seattle's Stranger hits the nail on the head when he writes of a "controversial" production of Oedipus, (Seneca's version,):
"The play begins with the chorus singing a creepy, complicated Russian folk chant while Oedipus dances naked and couples with Jocasta in the dark. It's exciting and a little shocking. Then the lights come up, the actors start talking, and everything falls apart. The production's surrounding details are good—the gabled house, the wheelbarrow full of old shoes (from plague victims), the choral music with its haunting, tense, Eastern European sound—but the conviction the company radiates when they talk about the project never makes it
onto the stage."
This is something that happens with commercial projects, Lort B non-profits, and even with smaller companies, (I am not making exceptions for some of my own productions by the way.)
I have some unformed thoughts on why this is. Basically, I think the core of the problem is that creating a sexually charged, edgy, powerful production is...well...hard work. Yes, all productions are hard work, I know that and I have lived that. But creating something truly incendiary takes more hard work.
My thought is this, (some of this from my own experiences.) You start off with this fantastic concept or edgy idea or vision. Suddenly, the clock starts ticking until opening night. The cast gets nervous, you get nervous, post cards need to be printed, programs need to be ordered. The lighting needs to be coordinated, there are electrical problems in the theatre. A cast member suddenly can't make a week of rehearsals. You find out that your idea for a set design can't work. (Anybody who has ever put on a show should know what I am talking about.)
When all of this happens, suddenly, just getting the show up seems like an accomplishment, and there has been no time to take the extra rehearsal time to let the actors get comfortable, to have them explore the weirder or more physical aspects of the scenes.
I am currently teaching an acting class and two talented actors have been doing a three minute scene from Waiting for Godot. They have brought it in for the last three weeks, and last night was the first time I felt that they were really tapping into the sadness and the comedy and able to mine it for its richness. It has taken time for them to absorb and learn to take their time with the stillness and the inner life. It is hard work, this art of theatre.
Talent is an aspect in this formula. Try to surround yourself with talent because talent can seek out the target and start to bracket it with much more precision. When I was on the football team at Boston College, I learned something invaluable about talent. (Asided from the fact that I didn't have any.)
What I learned was that: Natural Talent Recovers Faster. Watching the defensive backfield practice, I could see that the more naturally fast and naturally agile players were able to recover and regain control of a misstep in coverage. The less talented players could be left in the dust by a misstep, possibly even costing them a touchdown.
In theatre, I have found much the same thing. It is more complicated and subtle, but talent still recovers faster. Experience? Well of course experience helps, but, like anything else, what type of experience are you talking about? If an actor has never done Beckett, is he the right person for your production of Godot? He could be, if he is talented, and has the right skills. Remember, some quarterbacks can't run the option.
After talent and skills though, there is still the hard work. If you want to generate a heat on stage, you have to take the time to dry out your kindling first. Now, you can always build a nice pyramid of wood that looks like the perfect start to bonfire, but if you make it out of a bunch of green and sticky pine branches , good luck trying to get a raging inferno.
Just some random thoughts of mine. Brandon Kiley ends his article with this warning to all of us in theatre:
"After pointing out the emergency exits and reminding us about cell phones, the dutiful curtain speaker always says, "If you liked the show, please tell your friends. Word of mouth is the best advertising." It is, at least, the most accurate. And a little more honesty in the marketing strategies ("A lackluster comedy—for friends of the cast only!") might improve the art form, restore some integrity, and woo back the confidence of an already wary public."