Monthly Archives: September 2011

tear down the (fourth) wall

True story.

I go to see a play. House opens. I walk in. I’m essentially onstage. But there’s no one there. There are chairs off to my right. So I and everyone else entering the theater go to those chairs, pick the one that’s right for each of us. I sit down, open my program, glance at the stage, wait for the show to begin. It begins. There’s a play happening in front of me. And I’m bored out of my skull. This is in part because I think it’s a bad play. It’s well-acted, badly directed, and the design is entirely forgettable. But this is not why I’m bored, not really. I’m bored because all I can really focus on is one of the most basic theater-going principals, something we’ve all lived with our entire theater going and making lives: that gaping divide between the stage and the audience.

Why is it there?

"Get me outta here! Ican'tstaaandit!"

And no, I’m not being flippant. Really think about it. Why is there still a divide between the stage and the audience? I guess the simple answer is, “Because there was always a divide. From the time of the Greeks to the contemporary world, it allows the audience to understand that this is a heightened world, a simulacrum–”

<shut it, scholar. step aside.>

That’s all well and fine, and I love tradition too. (Seriously. Ask my mom how I feel about Christmas traditions.) But I can’t for the life of me understand why we’re still keeping the audience separate from the play. Not that that’s what we’re trying to do, but that’s what it feels like. We live in an age where I can carry whole universes of entertainment around with me. At any time I can turn on my computer and have access to pretty much any song that’s ever been recorded. I can watch TV shows old and new, stream favorite movies at the drop of a hat and all while chatting with friends who are watching the choose your own adventure variety show that is YouTube.

Everything I want, whether it’s pure entertainment (yes, I’m looking at you, True Blood), or riveting, thought-provoking drama (RIP The Wire) is accessible via a barely 5 lb. machine that I can carry with my left arm. And if you know my left arm, you know that’s saying something. But I go into the theater and even if I’m sitting in the front row, I feel like the stage is a world away.

Now part of this is definitely connected to the fact that the way we receive stories as a technically-saturated society is changing radically and quickly because we are, in fact, surrounded by so much media wherever we go. And now I’m watching a play and I can’t get the close-up that eliminates the need for the long explanatory monologue, but that’s not what I’m asking for. The thing that keeps theater vibrant and relevant and dangerous is the fact that it’s happening live in front of you. Seems an obvious observation, but from the way plays are too often being produced today, you’d almost think it a revolutionary concept. In a world where you can essentially choose your own content, who wants to go to a play, be forced to sit in one place and feel like you’re being ignored because there’s an invisible fourth wall between you and the shit you’ve come to see?

Our age of instant, on-demand, DIY media has torn down the wall between audience and producer. It’s why even network television–especially network television–has been forced to innovate and take risks. But in the theater keep doing the same things in the same ways. Or we look for ridiculous answers to distract the audience from realizing that they’re bored.

“Let’s design elaborate, moving scenery that appears to move on its own. And throw in some video while we’re at it!”

<n.b. all you automation and video folks out there, I’m not decrying what you do. rather, I’m pointing out how directors seem to love to throw up smoke screens to disguise really long (and usually unnecessary) set changes. guess what. it’s a dodge. we’re still out here, still bored, still feeling left out of the party.>

My idea then: innovate by getting back to basics. The first theater was some Neanderthal creating shadow creatures on the cave wall and doing all the voices. That is the quintessential live, communal, storytelling experience–It’s why ghost stories at sleepovers are still popular. (They are, aren’t they?) And what do these two events have in common? No audience, no stage. It’s all one. Invite them in, make them a part of it. And I’m not talking about crazy experimental plays, nor am I saying that every play should include direct audience participation if only because the experimental, environmental world is already doing that. No, let’s do conventional plays in unconventional ways.

True Stories.

My friends at Chalk Rep in Los Angeles are already doing this (though I would challenge them to go further with it).

For “We declare you a terrorost…” at SPF 2009, we redirected the audience away from the door that clearly led to the theater. Instead they were greeted by dour-looking, severely dressed individuals who communicated only with rudimentary gestures to tell the audience where to go, and before they knew what was going on, they were onstage, surrounded by the characters they were about to follow for the next 75 minutes and being viewed by their fellow audience members who had just gone through a similar experience and were now reverted to role of spectator.* (I’d be lying if I didn’t admit that watching the audience cross that stage wasn’t my favorite part of the night.) Ultimately, the audience ended up where they expected to: with that gaping chasm between them and the stage, but I really feel that they came at the play differently for having had to cross that gap.

So don’t close up the wall with our English dead. Tear it down I say. Hey! Teachers! Leave them kids alone. And you too, Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this (fourth) wall.

*I have to thank Niegel Smith for coming up with the alternate entrance idea. He’d probably try to deflect and say it was the team’s idea, but first and foremost it was his. I didn’t realize at the time just how much of a revolution he was stirring up inside me.


the elephant in the room

“From the viewpoint of analytic psychology, the theatre, aside from any aesthetic value, may be considered as an institution for the treatment of the mass complex.”

-Carl Jung, Psychology of the Unconscious

In all of the bloviating and grandstanding about the country’s very real unemployment crisis and the awkward silence about its constant shadow, hopelessness, the Arts remain unmentioned outside of the usual ever-tightening concentric circles of artists and administrators.  Our crumbling bridges must be repaired so goods may be delivered.  Our children must be educated in clean, modern schools to become engaged, informed, discerning citizens.  The American Theatre, too, is an economic engine and the key to a functioning democracy.  Somehow the President overlooked it in his address to Congress.  It’s hard to blame him.

do you see what she sees?

Maybe it’s because of what we call our work.  “Play” does not bring to mind the enormous amount of expertise and labor leveraged into a single performance.  If only people could feel the buzzing intensity of a technical rehearsal.  If only they could see an actor’s bruises.  If only they could see the designer’s ink-stained hands and clothes.  If only they could watch an intern fall twelve feet from deck to concrete on a way-too-late night, and greet her the next morning as she sorts gels with what is now her good hand.

The growing trend of blogging from backstage and tweeting from the rehearsal rooms is a tear in this veil, but it is tightly packaged and reeks of marketing.  While the conversations we have are rooted in the implicit value of theatre sprung from a total immersion in its very real financial, physical, and psychic costs, the audience (not just the anticipated percentage, but the totality of potential audience, which is to say:  everybody) remains largely unconvinced that there’s anything going on other than the exchange of currency for spectacle and entertainment.

****WARNING!  FIRST PERSON SINGULAR VOICED ANECDOTE!********

Years ago, I was an understudy in a production of Noises Off.  Rather than have the set rotate, the audience was ushered, by yours truly and the rest of the understudy gang, to pine bleachers that had been built “backstage” in what was basically an in-the-round set-up.  One night a woman sat on the bleacher and clutched my sleeve.

-Excuse me, I have a question.

-Yes, ma’am?

-How much did this cost?

-Excuse me?

-Because it seems as though that (pointing to the set) costs as much as this (eyes rolling towards the pine) and my ticket was $XX.

As it happened, I had spent the summer working over-hire for the scene shop.  I’d picked up the wood from the lumber yard.  I had, in fact, personally belt sanded every inch of those hundreds of yards of pine. (Incidentally, this is how I learned that I’m allergic to pine.  Thankfully this is no great loss to carpentry)  I had a pretty good idea of what the backstage cost.

-Eleventy billion.

-Pardon?

-It cost eleventy billion dollars.  Enjoy the second act!

This was maybe ten days after September 11, 2001.

In her defense, she had been told by the president that it was her civic duty to spend.  Value as commodity clearly superseded value as communal joy.

*******TRUE STORY***********

Were the audience invited backstage, or into the rehearsal hall, perhaps they would understand that Theatre is Labor (and art.  yes, art.  but not until the audience arrives), and Labor has intrinsic value.  Backstage is a safety concern, to be sure, but the rehearsal hall is one of the safest places on Earth.  Nothing should happen in there that wouldn’t or couldn’t happen onstage.  If we invited the audience to truly see us fail, pick ourselves up and then fail again, maybe they’d see the value we see.  Maybe they’d always be part of the conversation.  They would probably return the favor.

Is it enough to de-mystify the value of the work?  Of course not, but it is a necessary step if the Theatre is ever to become a part of the national discourse.  For Theatre to become Infrastructure, it must be defined by its engagement with the very real and very immediate concerns of not just the idea of who the audience may be, but who the audience could be, and what they care about.

According to the 2010 census, 15.1% of the country lives in poverty.  That’s 46.2 million individuals with something on their collective minds.  That’s a population that would rank 27th in the world, between the total populations of Myanmar and Spain.

Can the American Theatre at the very least be perpetually discursive about the topic on everyone’s minds?  Can it ignore the elephant in the room?  If our Theatre is not directly addressing the crises in our audience’s lives, what are we talking about?  and for whom?  and how does it relate to that elephant?

Should there suddenly be a slew of Grapes of Wrath productions?  Should the dust be blown off of Odets?  Possibly, but the daily tragedies and absurd farces of contemporary life are fertile theatrical ground in their own right that demand attention from the generation living them.  If the American Theatre is to be a part of the national conversation, it must offer itself as a forum to explore and engage the critical issues of the moment.