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thoughts on theatre

I often struggle with what theatre is in a modern context. I know what she was but I am uncertain as to what she is. What I do know is that I am often disappointed in what I see on stages a majority of the time. I think I am more upset with the publics’ reaction to this low quality theatre than at the work itself.

For example, last weekend I saw a student production of Caryl Churchill’s Cloud Nine at the local university. The actor who played Betty in the first half and Edward in the second half was rubbish (I am being polite). He was incredibly self-aware, aware of the ‘jokes’ in the script and nearly corpsed several times in the first act. He never knew where to look, his eyes dashing about and over the audience. All of this is basic technique. Anyone who I daring to go on the stage at that level should know how to find their middle distance at the very least, not to mention being enough in the character to not be ‘hammy.’

Compare this with one of his co-actors. She played Edward in the first half and Betty in the second. Hers was a subtle performance with a good depth of understanding of what and what her characters were. There was no self-awareness with her technique used as brush strokes rather than paint rollers. For example, in the second half she is playing an older woman raised in colonial Africa during the Victorian era. She knew how to sit in a skirt. This may seem trivial but it is rare enough for me to see an actor that has that understanding that it becomes noteworthy. She also knew how to hold her purse, tightly with both hands in front of her on the purse. Betty mentions she doesn’t trust the strangers in the park and this minor way of standing let’s us see the character without having to be told.

I hate being told by actors, I want to be shown.

Two actors, the same play. One has missed the point while the other shows an excellent understanding of her craft for her experience level. The rest of the cast, for the most part, was where I would expect a university student to be. They had moments where they were flat, but generally were adequate.

The true fault came in the direction. The play was co-directed, a common university production method that I am vehemently opposed to. The first act was directionless. There was no rhythm though much tempo. (For info on what I mean please read Richard Boleslavsky’s book, Acting: the First Six Lessons) they seemed to rush through the tricky bits. The second half was better in so much as the actors seemed to have a sense of whom they were and why they were.

I found out later which director had directed which half and was not surprised. I had seen a work at the Edinburgh Fringe this past summer directed by the director of the first half and noted all the same mistakes. As I have said elsewhere, I have no trouble with people making mistakes (I certainly still make them) but I cannot excuse making the same mistakes twice. The director of the second half also had a play in Edinburgh, which was very well done and I thought this person has some talent. And she does.

But I am digressing.

After the first half the audience applauded. I was stunned by the reaction. I looked at the two people I had come to the show with and said, not quietly, “that was crap.” I then proceeded outside and had a fag. They joined me outside, though neither of them smoke, and asked my what I had disliked about it. (They, sadly, were in the throng that applauded) I countered by asking them why they had enjoyed it. The responded, “it was really funny.” Me, “of course it was funny, Caryl Churchill writes some remarkably funny stuff.” Pause, “so what was the first half about?” I asked. And here is where what I find disappointing about theatre came out. They hadn’t a clue. The social, sexual and cultural politics being viewed from the stereotype was lost. All the actors could muster was ‘funny’ because they hadn’t the craft to do any better and were not given the means to do any better from the director.

After the show my friends did comment the second half was much better than the first though not as funny. Again, the actors were given better tools from the director and were able to rise to the occasion.

And the issue was directorial for the most part. Outside of the actor I mentioned above, who should be told he can’t act by his instructors, the cast was fine for its level.

And here is where I hit upon it, the problem with the production. The instructors. After the show all the fellow students of the cast were waiting in the lobby and each in turn told the fore mentioned bad actor that he was brilliant. The ‘luvvy’ culture hard at work patting itself on the back when they should be reflecting on how to do it better next time.

Later I found out from a few former students from that department that this is a normal occurrence. The instructors are not critical, their students can do no wrong, and everything is brilliant.

I would like to say, for the record, everything is not brilliant. Everything is not brilliant when a sub-par piece of work is allowed to be produced on a stage and then no critical response comes. I have no issue with students putting on shows that fail. They should put on shows that fail as often as possible so they can learn from it. But they aren’t learning. They are being told how wonderful they are and therefore have no need to change, or strive, or learn.

A few days later I was in Borders purchasing a few books (Martin Esslin’s ‘Theatre of the Absurd,’ Brecht’s ‘On Theatre,’ and Dario Fo’s ‘Accidental Death of an Anarchist’ translated by Simon Nye) when I recognised two lasses from the university theatre department looking, confusedly, for books in the theatre section. So I asked what they were looking for.

Her 1: Books on Directing.
Me: You mean a, ‘how to direct a play,’ book?
Her 2: We know how to direct, we’re just looking for books on it.
At this point I smiled and said, ‘possibly. Here, read these.’

I picked out ‘The Empty Space’ by Peter Brook, ‘Directing a Play’ by Michael McCaffery, and one other book that escapes my memory at the moment. My theatre company partner was there with me and just gave me a look. I told the young women, “Read them, but remember there is only one way to direct a play and that is to direct a play. So go direct something and get someone to watch it who will point out all your mistakes. You will make many mistakes, we all do, and then you will learn. And then, maybe, you will be a director.” They looked confused but said thank you. I don’t think anyone has told them they could fail or that they will mistakes.

I left. Who knows? Maybe I sent them on a path to good theatre. Here’s hoping so.



( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
25th Nov, 2006 16:02 (UTC)
I guess I have a lot of sympathy for the reaction of your two friends here. If a play is funny I will applaud even if I don't think that all the actors are all that great. After all, I go to a play to enjoy myself so I will try to do so and ignore the downside.
25th Nov, 2006 16:06 (UTC)
i understand that sentiment, you want to be entertained and theatre should, ultimately, be entertaining. but do you not think that you are selling yourself, and the performers/directors/etc... short in the applauding of that which is less than what it could be. what would happen if audiences only apllauded that which is good and worthy of applause? wouldn'tthat eventually end in theatre becoming better?
25th Nov, 2006 16:15 (UTC)
Hmm... but generally what you have is a curate's egg situation like that you describe above. Some bits good some bits bad. I think it would be a dreadful performance that I couldn't find something good to applaud. Usually there is a part where the main actors come forward in turn so that the ones you favour can get more applause.

I honestly could not tell if a play was well directed. I could say if I thought the script was good and I could say which of the individual actors I liked... This is no slight to the directors art, I just don't have the background to *know*.
25th Nov, 2006 16:24 (UTC)
i bet you know more about theatre than you think, if you do indeed go to theatre as often as you say you do. you may not pin point it as director task or actor task, but you do know a bit. the fact that you are participating in this community shows that you have a 'love' of theatre and want to explore it.

it is a poser, isn't it. don't applaud and people may not get rewarded for what they do well, applaud and what is missing may remain missing. sigh, not easy to reconcile, that's for certain.

it really is a dreadful performance i won't applaud, i just don't applaud very loud or long if it is poor. like you, i aapplaud louder when a performer comes forward at the curtain as an acknowledgement to them that they did well.

per haps we need to write letters to directors and artistic directors... maybe.

ultimately, what i want to do is explore theatre and what is good and bad and how do we get it better as a whole.
25th Nov, 2006 17:43 (UTC)
I really enjoy going to the theatre... certainly more than going to see a film (which I rarely do).

I guess someone informed like you could say something constructive to the actors or director.
25th Nov, 2006 17:47 (UTC)
i think that is not completely true. the audience is an intrinsic part of the theatre experience. a good audience can amke a good show better, or make a bad show worse. or any variation one cares to mention.

it is likely you bring something to the theatre when you go. something that changes the dynamic of the prodution, whether you are concious of it or not. it makes the audience/theatre relationship very difficult to understnad or pin down. if you have had a bad day you can bring a million different elements to the theatre with you. just as if you have had a good day.

i am willing to bet that you would be able to give constructive criticism to a production if you were pushed to and it would be informed and useful.
13th Feb, 2007 20:22 (UTC)
Thank you so much for this post. Only yesterday, I decided to get registered in livejournal, my husband has it for a long time and I was just reading... And, when I scanned communities, I found your post...I read it in Belarus and really appreciated it. I explain why: it is even impossible to imagine such the discussion in Belarus. All theatres are under state control, there is a law on censorship... You could watch performances about World War II and the Great Dutch Lithuanian and classic... These are two aspects of the Belarusian theatre, but publis is always at the theatre. They always applaud, because they do not care of a quality. In our country, people go to the theatre because it comes from the Soviet Union mentality... If you go to the theatre, it means you are a part of an intellectual elite among workers... And, you could observe an ordinary situation, whe a wife and a husband come to the theatre in suits that they had wear at the weddings, the husban would sleep during a performance, but in the end both of them would applaud. The Russians are saying that "Public is a full". The audience always appreciate everything that is done by an actor...
As for an entertaiment, I am director of the Belarus Free Theatre (www.dramaturg.org) and we the only underground theatre in Europe because of the last dictator in Europe. We became prohibited from the our first performance "4.48 Psychosis" by Sarah Kane. We checked 25 facilities, and everywhere we we told that it is prohibited. We asked "why?" and were told that in Belarus we do not have suicide, sexual minorities and mental diseases... The latest performance is "Being Harold Pinter" based on four plays of Pinter, his Nobel Prize Speech and reall letters from political prisoners of Belarus and four other performances based on the Belarusian plays... We can not entertain people, because we need to make them think. But, of course, we discuss with all actors how they perform... But soemtimes we think, that we even can not say them a word, because we moved from 10 apartments during rehearsals, because of police, because they lost all their state jobs, because of the activities in FT... But, then we stop and understand that it doesn't matter where you play, only professionalism is important and a message that you want to tell to your audience.
Once again, thank you so much for your great post and to other for the comments.
18th Feb, 2007 23:44 (UTC)
thank you for this. sometimes i feel very isolated in thinking that theatre can be more than what it is seen as. that theatre can be a tool to challenge and change. and i certainly support what i have read about your theatre on the web. who knows, maybe one day i will be putting on guerrilla with you.
23rd Feb, 2007 18:11 (UTC)
I really like the idea of the guerrila. Besides, we could teach non-violent resistance:)))
Yesterday, during our performances police came three times... An owner of the place will loose his licence again. It is already a second time when he is loosing his licence because of us. And, we will need to pass an official investigation.
So, the guerrila that what we need...
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )