Theatre Series: Experience

There are many varied aspects in the theatrical realm, but every single one of them point toward the same, singular goal: to put on a good show. In all honesty, can you really have a show without an audience? Hint: the answer is no.

I have had the privilege of being involved in almost every area of the theatre, but I must say that it is wonderful to be able to go out and view the work of other casts and crews. This is exactly what I did on Saturday night. My sister and I went to a musical in St. Joseph, Missouri titled The Drowsy Chaperone. It was an absolutely stunning production.

The show begins in the dark, and our guide “Man in Chair” is speaking to us. About theatre. One could call this “meta-theatre” I suppose. In any case, he is a riveting individual, and when the lights come up we are in his home. He invites us to listen to his record of The Drowsy Chaperone, and when he plays it the curtain flies up and the show begins. Throughout the musical, Man in Chair adds his commentary, and we come to love him in the process.

Sitting in the audience in that theatre, watching him talk to us about his love for theatre, I laughed and cried. I soared at every high point, and felt the gut wrenching emotions I was supposed to at the low points. Everyone did. There is a sort of strange, communal experience which every audience member shares. It is intriguing because no show is ever exactly the same, and no audience is ever exactly the same. When I am watching a show I am part of something wholly and completely unique; utterly unable to be reproduced. Walking out of the show that night, I felt that those who had been complete strangers before the show were suddenly fast friends of mine. We had all been through something together that would never happen again.

Everyone should watch theatre. Why? Because it is an experience that you cannot have in any other place. Theatre is catharsis. It is a living, breathing art with nothing but an imagined fourth wall between yourself and the world being created on the stage. Watching a show is very much like being transported to another world through the pages of a book, except that these stories do what every child dreams of—they come alive.

These living stories are sometimes happy, occasionally humorous, mildly dramatic but almost always full of relevant truths that the audience can carry out the lobby doors with them.

Let’s go back to The Drowsy Chaperone. There are moments in which I began to understand parts about Man in Chair’s life outside of these few hours he was spending with us. He had been in love, and he had lost that love through divorce. He was a tortured individual. These records of musicals were his only escape from the reality which he had to live through every single day.

Isn’t that the way theatre works, though? We all claw our way through this mad thing they call life. Sometimes, even if it’s just for a few hours while sitting in chair 14, row D, we’d like to escape and watch someone else’s world for awhile.

Theatre Series: Act

“Never the luck, and never the lead, and “never-you-mind” they say. In time we all taste, the lime in the light, and I’ll have my night someday.” – Bazzard, “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”

Let me be completely transparent here. Every actor–yes, I’m making this blanket statement–every actor wants to play a big part on stage. If there is an actor who is completely content with five minutes of stage time and two lines to memorize, I certainly haven’t met them. We strive to be the best. Sometimes we know we are the best, and things still don’t go our way. Theatre, especially in the acting realm, is a hardscrabble, competitive life. Even at the collegiate level I have seen friends cut down friends because casting didn’t go their way.

Now, while what I have just described is a large facet of what happens between actors, it is not the only facet. I prefer to air the dirty laundry at the beginning, and then get to the good stuff.

There is an immeasurable bond that is created between cast members. During every show I have been cast in, there was a sort of communal experience that is unique to theatre. To tell a story with our bodies–our faces, vocal cords, arms, legs, clothes–and to create beautiful art together is priceless. The theatrical community as a whole shares a fantastic bond, but the actors knit especially close together throughout the process of creating a play.

I have spoken about Snow Queen before, in my entry about design. Let’s revisit that show, shall we?

The characters in Snow Queen consisted of a band of lost children, a ragtag gang of Orcs, the Storyteller, the Snow Queen, the Ice Warriors, the Snowbirds and the Wolves. A Prince and Princess also make an appearance. These characters were brought to life by myself and a few dozen friends of mine while at community college, and it was amazing.

In this show, I played the first role that I truly loved. I was a loud mouthed girl who was part of the lost children in the forest. My name was Gerda, and with the help of a slew of others, I ended up saving the world. It was a truly magical show, and let me tell you this: the friendships that were formed and strengthened during that show have not been broken. I am still in contact with many of those people, even though we’ve all moved on in life. The other day I saw a couple of the middle school actors who had been in the show (two years after our performances) and we reconnected as if we had never been apart.

I have a hard time putting it into words just how I have been changed by the shows I’ve been in. It is a process that is difficult to explain, but anyone who has ever acted knows what I mean.

For those of you who’ve not acted, here’s a scenario: Imagine that you have grown up in a single room. You have everything you need: sunlight, food, water, toys, internet, etc. You are content in this room, and would live out all your days there without complaint. Then one day, someone opens the door. The room is flooded with sound, and a warm sort of light you’ve never felt before. This person pulls you out into a room full of people. You are uncomfortable, all you want is to crawl back into your room and lock the door. The person who has dragged you out begins introducing you to people. There’s a dancer, and she shows you a bit of her art. A juggler, a mime, a basketball player, circus performers, accountants, inventors. People of all shapes, sizes, colors and professions. Your mind is overwhelmed with all the new information these people are injecting into it.

At the end of the night, you go back to your room, and the person who took you out of it quietly closes the door. You realize, suddenly, that all you want is to be back in that room with all those people, and so you wait anxiously for the next opportunity. You are no longer content in your small, enclosed world. So you sit with your ear to the door, and wait for the people to return.

This is a small illustration that shows what theatre did to me. It got a hold of my heart, of my soul. It will never let go, and I never want it to.

Theatre Series: Direct

Surprisingly, as long as I have been in theatre, I never directed until this very semester. Not a thing. It wasn’t just that I had never had the opportunity (although I hadn’t), it was also that I had not felt compelled to direct. I was always the one acting, the girl who wanted (and occasionally got) the lead.

However, all of that changed when I enrolled in “Directing” at York College. The class was a requirement for my degree, so I knew I was going to take it, but I had no idea what a profound impact it would have on me.

The first major project we had was the direction of a ten minute play. I chose “Brother” by Mary Gallagher, and once I had my cast we were off. I enjoyed plotting out the movements and studying the dialogue, but there was one rehearsal—a week or so into the process—where a sudden realization hit me.

We were sitting in the basement of our theatre building—Gurganus Hall—myself and my two actors. They had been prepared to run through the show, but I had other ideas. “Let’s chat for a minute first. I have some questions for you.” I had prepared those questions earlier that day, and in asking them I hoped to lead my actors to understand their characters more fully. We talked for about half of our rehearsal period, and they came to some brilliant realizations. It was in that moment that I recognized the fragility of these people.

I held in my proverbial hands the very heart and soul of these freshmen actors. They wanted nothing more than to please me, to do what I wanted, and to be good. Every actor wants to be good. I know, from an acting standpoint, the deep and burning desire to hear words of affirmation from my director; but I had never been in those directing shoes before. I realized that with a single word I could smash their egos into the ground, or make them soar to even greater heights. It is a terrifying, but exciting, power.

Now, I had no desire to hurt my actors’ egos, but realizing the potential for that made me choose my words very carefully. If I had a critique, I put it as gently as I could. Not so gently that it was misunderstood, but gently enough that I didn’t sound more harsh than necessary.

I think every director, or at least every good director, realizes this strange power they have over the men and women who act for them. Many people see the director as a puppet master, pulling the strings left and right, up and down. But we are so much more than that.

A puppet master needn’t worry about the emotions of her puppets—they are inanimate, she animates them. A director realizes that she is molding real, live human beings; human beings with hearts and pride and such fragile self-esteems.

When I realized that, I looked back on what I had learned in the class so far with new eyes. Everything we were being taught was coming from a man who had been doing this for longer than I have been alive (or nearly so). My filter for his words was changed after that. I am no longer simply an actor trying to learn about directing; now I am a director who desperately needs the guidance and instruction of someone who knows more than I about this strange adventure.

Theatre Series: Build

The camaraderie one feels when working on the set for a show is unlike any other; laughing back and forth, listening to music play over the sound system, and creating the occasional hilarious story that may survive for years to come. Even though the work is hard—as is inevitable when you put your whole being into something—it is rewarding.

Building the set for a play is very different than building a house or a shed. I’ve seen more jerry-rigged set pieces than I can count. The rule of thumb is, generally: If it’s safe to walk under and the audience can’t see how you made it happen, then it’s good. As long as the set looks good from an audience perspective and is functional, it really doesn’t matter what the back of it is like.

One of my favorite things to build was a set of thrones for The Snow Queen by Graham Cooper. They were called the “Seeing Thrones” and each represented one of the four elements—Earth, Water, Fire and Air. Going into it, I had no idea what I was going to make—but it was a challenge, and I rose to it.

I decided that each throne would represent the darker side of its element—after all, they were being controlled by the Snow Queen herself, and were designed to paralyze children forever and allow the Queen to rule the world. So Earth would be a deadly Nightshade plant, Water a frozen waterfall, Fire carved from a chunk of lava rock, and Air a tornado.

After coming up with these ideas, the next step was to decide on what to make them out of. I based each one on something different. A few other builders and I scrounged around the storage space and found three old chairs (one upholstered) and a stump that was not exactly made of wood. I decided these things would do.

The stump eventually became the Water throne, the two wooden chairs Earth & Air, and the upholstered chair was gutted and turned into the Fire throne. These pieces looked great at the end, but the process that went into building them was long and arduous. One night I recall staying in the theatre until 3 o’clock in the morning just to finish one of them.

I think a lot more people should be exposed to building something—anything, really. The satisfaction of seeing a finished product, done properly, and knowing that you made that happen is absolutely glorious. Even if your finished product is only viewable for a few hours over the course of four shows, it is worth it to know that you contributed in such a way.

The problem solving skills I have gained from being a builder in the theatre have been astronomically useful. I rarely flinch from a challenge anymore—I simply stare it in the face and try to think of creative solutions; with the help of others, of course. The community of theatre construction teams I have worked with over the years has taught me this: to never undervalue the ability of someone other than myself to come up with something absolutely brilliant.

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Published in: on October 9, 2013 at 12:41 am  Comments (3)  
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Theatre Series: Design

The designer in a theatre is often the most overlooked individual, at least from the audience’s perspective. There is a certain respect all audience members hold for the builder, the director, and always the actor–but the designer, the mind behind the set, costumes, lights and whatnot–is often forgotten. I myself have been a designer and experienced this firsthand.

When I was in community college, our director always built design teams from his student body. For my very first production with him, I was put on the costume team because I could sew. He has always been one of those men who wanted everyone to use the skills they already have–and yet he was also very willing to teach his students things they might not otherwise know (i.e., how to use a DeWalt drill).

When the production opened (I was also acting in the show), I was excitedly looking around at all the costumes my team had designed. There was so much symbolism! Each character had specific color schemes that directly related to their personality, and every bird that was mentioned in the show (because birds were a very important theme) had a character whose costume related to it. I was soon to realize, though, that none of the audience was nearly as excited as I had expected.

We acted! We tore up that stage. The production was wonderful, and afterwards as I spoke with audience members, I could hear them congratulating everyone on how well the actors did, how fantastic the set was, the effective way that the actors were directed—but no one seemed to have picked up on the symbolism we had so carefully crafted into the costumes. The asymmetrical lines for the mentally twisted characters, the red fabric to represent the life force of each person on the stage, the yellows and browns used for the main character and her family—it seemed like no one understood all of the thought that went into those things.

It wasn’t just the costume design that had been overlooked. Set had symbolism, too, but that is almost never seen. What people see is the work that went into building the set, not designing it.

Then there are the lighting designers. If you have not designed lights, you do not understand the amount of work that goes into it. Hanging lights and covering the stage properly is work in and of itself, but there is a lot of work going into the color choices and the transitions as well. It is lighting that almost no one in the audience will think about. To the average audience member, the lights are simply flipped on at the beginning of the show and then flipped off at the end. Little do they know, it is not that easy.

I write this to bring about awareness of the work that goes into the design of a production. Perhaps next time you go to a theatrical event, you will notice more of the subtleties that are involved. Remember that every color and every pattern is chosen for a reason—it isn’t like we spin a color wheel to decide which one the main character’s dress will be.

Published in: on October 7, 2013 at 11:06 pm  Leave a Comment  
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