1) The BBC/World service radio recording of King Lear at The Globe, Fiona Shaw as Goneril (nipples at attention the entire chilly night) and other RSC actors: I’ve been pondering for some time just how little theatricality is needed for a play to work. I watched several staged readings by New York’s Labyrinthe theater company at the Public last year, and was a little surprised note that the productions, with actors in street dress, scripts in hand, stage manager reading the stage directions, and no set, didn’t at all seem incomplete. The writing, acting, and I guess, direction (though I know next to nothing about this), sparse though it was, all sufficed to create moving nights of theatre. I guess if the actor can infuse lines, from memory or the page, with meaning (god, I hate writing about acting), and the writing itself is compelling, it really doesn’t matter if he’s reading off the page and miming the props and wearing sneakers. The importance of the “fourth wall” is defunct, so is the idea that so many minutely planned and executed factors must converge in “creating a life onstage.” King Lear added another nuance to my thoughts on the subject: because it was being recorded for radio, whenever some outside sound drowned out the actors’ voices (bloody airplanes), or even when an actor muddled his lines, the show would stop and the actors would repeat the scene (though significant cuts were made for this recording, the production still lasted near four hours, we rabble in the yard growing light-headed and slouchy). At one point, the actor playing Gloucester had to repeat his line starting with, “I am your host…..no, uh, I am you host…..ok, I am your host!!/With robbers’ hands my hospitable favors/you should not ruffle thus…” The audience chuckled at the repeated flub, yet I don’t think the horror of the scene was lost on anyone; people actually winced at the moment Cornwall mimed stabbing Gloucester’s eyes out, as the sound effects man thrust a knife into a watermelon and turned it. Now, if we don’t need costumes, alright, if we don’t need sets, fine (please no costume designers or scenographers read this)—even if we don’t need actors to be off book and pysicalizing the action of the play, great, but when we don’t even need to suspend our disbelief—what do we need?? Great writing and good voices? The element of pretend is shot to bits. Or maybe it’s elevated, as the audience exercises more of its own imagination because the art director didn’t do it for us. It does make regular theatre seem rather over-produced and gimmicky.
2) Gimmickiness is something I’ve been thinking about a lot, how I hate it and want to avoid it, and how difficult it is to offer something in its stead which gets the point across ungimmickily. One of our first spoken verse classes was on the prologue to Romeo and Juliet, and the task of our two hours was to experiment with different ways of performing it which involved, or “connected with” (I still hate writing about acting) the audience. Most peoples’ first and most stubborn impulse was to kneel down to our (the audience’s) eye-level and speak directly into our faces. This always makes me (as an audience member) uncomfortable and guarded, so that I can’t really listen and want to hide. Few things in theatre are worse than watching an actor strain and sweat to “make contact” with the audience, and whenever I am subjected to it myself, always resent being made to feel like I have to validate, or reciprocate, the actor’s labors. I usually nod stupidly or grin stupidly or lower my eyes with a shy stupid smile, as though it’s the intensity of our “connection,” rather than his desperate labors, which embarrasses me. Just because an actor looks straight at you while he speaks doesn’t mean there’s any connection there. It is a gimmick, and an elementary one at that, yet….I don’t know how I would involve the audience otherwise. Presumably, if what’s going on onstage is interesting, the audience will feel involved no matter how oblivious the actors seem to them…..although in a theatre like The Globe (and our school’s main task, they say, is to give us the skills we would need to play on that much trickier stage than most), where it’s light outside, and noisy, and people are constantly milling about and, worst, of all, can see and be distracted by, each other, it takes some extra effort to keep them interested in the traffic onstage. What does one do? Other attempts involved the prologue spoken by the Prince, having broken up a brawl with those first lines and shaming the brawlers with the prophesy of the outcome of the feud, another, having each actor in the play walk onstage while offering one line, as a Greek chorus converging into one mass by the end….it all seemed gimmicky and untruthful to me; I don’t feel like any of our experiments worked, and I left the class convinced that if I were to direct the play, I would have the woman who asks through the loudspeakers in her detached and slightly sanctimonious voice, “Please unwrap your candy now…turn off all cellphones, pagers, and beepers,…the recording of this performance is strictly prohibited… Two households, both alike in dignity…” the audience can listen if they want, and they probably would….of course, this is way more gimmicky than any of the other methods I found so distasteful, but at least we wouldn’t be subjecting the audience to an actor desperately trying to “connect” with them.