Sunday, September 23, 2012

Theater has Changed

[This is the second in the How Theatre Changed series. There is an outtake that links to this one: Realism in Theatre.  The series began with Starting with a Lie and includes The Actor Audience Relationship.]

You walk into a theatre. You find your seat down toward the front because you paid a little more for your tickets to be close to the actors. You settle into your comfortable theater seat. The audience is buzzing. After a moment, the house lights dim and a hush falls over the crowd. The stage lights come up or the curtain rises. The set is the interior of a modest home. It is not exactly naturalistic, though clearly a home with designed accents. Actors enter. The clothes they wear fit the house setting. They begin speaking. The language is familiar and colloquial like you speak in your home. They do not address the audience. There is an imaginary “fourth wall” of the house that you are peering through to see the action of the play. This helps you “suspend your disbelief.” It puts you in the place and time of the play. You are there to see the play. You are an observer of the play.

At this edge of the early 21st century, we would call this a traditional theatre experience. It is familiar, not one of those experimental, avant garde productions. It’s what we expect from our theater. Hasn’t it always been like this?

It hasn’t. This experience that we call theater is still relatively new. It is only about a hundred years old. Shakespeare would cry “foul and most unnatural murder” if he were to see it. Or, at the least find this new theater a novelty unlike what he did. Sophocles, Moliere and all of the great actors of the 19th century would have the same response. The theatre we call traditional is wildly divergent from what came before.

It could be said that theatre changed to reflect it’s time. It became a more realistic and psychologically connected experience. And yet, we lost some vital aspects of theatre in the translation. I believe for theatre to meet the requirements of expressing what it is to live in the 21st Century and to remain vital, we need to go back and reclaim some of what made theatre theatre before the turn of the last century. [Read the post on The Rise of Realism]

Every time theatre has remade itself, it has begun by looking back at what came before. The early seed of the shift to realistic theatre began with a look back at Shakespearean production practices. The rise of the regional theatre movement in this country took a look back.

Let’s compare the production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in the newly opened Globe Theater (1600) and the recent production of Tracy Letts' Pulitzer Prize winning play August: Osage County, (2008)[i]

  • In a Modern Theater: The audience tends to be seated in rows on one side of the playing area. The audience is separate from the playing area. They are observing. Even in three sided thrust and theater in the round settings, the audience has a clear understanding of the barrier between their space and the actors.
  • In an Elizabethan Theater: The audience surrounded the actors horizontally and vertically. The stage was a platform in a round building. On three sides of the platform, the audience stood with heads just above the platform. As the player looked out on a horizontal plane, the audience encircled him 300 degrees. As the player looked up there were two more tiers of seating that surrounded the actor 360 degrees. Everywhere he looked there was audience.


This a photo of the rebuilt Globe Theater in London

  • In a Modern Theater: The actors talk and relate to each other exclusively. They do not speak to or acknowledge the audience. They are in the world of the play. To address the audience would be to break the fourth wall plane, disturb the action, and no longer be in character. It would be discordant.
  • In an Elizabethan Theater: Everywhere the actor looked, there was audience. He couldn’t talk to a fellow actor without seeing an audience member behind him. The theater was designed for the actor to speak with and directly to the audience. This was not just in soliloquies, but also during scenes with other actors. I imagine that the actors talked to the audience more than their fellow scene mates. [Please read my post on the Actor-Audience Relationship for more information]

  • In a Modern Theater: The most expensive seats are up front near the stage. The cheap seats are those furthest away from the stage, often up in the balconies. The people with money and status get close. Those with less have an altered experience due to the distance from their seat to the stage. The youthful and under classed are often more boisterous and expressive than those who sit in the expensive seats. Everyone is seated, which causes a passive experience.
  • In an Elizabethan Theater: The cheap seats were in the front. And, they were not seats. The people around the stage (called: the Groundlings) stood through the performance. It’s hard to think about standing for a three hour play until you think of standing for a rock concert or a football game. The next more expensive seats were in the tiers surrounding the stage. The expensive seats were the Lord’s Boxes, above and behind the players. This seating arrangement created a different experience than today’s audience layout.

  • In a Modern Theater: The scenery, costumes, lighting and sound are designed by artists and constructed by craftsman to create the environment of the play. It is designed to represent the place and time. The degree of naturalism to expressionism or abstract is carefully calculated to tell the story of the play. It is representational.
  • In the Elizabethan Theater: The Theater was the scenery. It had doors, columns and inner below and a balcony. There was a roof that represented the heavens and a god or angel could ascend to heaven and the trap door known as hell mouth to go the other way. The actors conjured the setting in the imaginations of the audience with minimal additions. The costumes were of the current time, even when playing ancient Romans. There were no lights since the plays were played during the day time, except when they brought on torches or lanterns to act like it was dark. There was a lot of music, played live by musicians, usually contemporary tunes. The experience was more presentational.

Set for August: Osage County

I don’t have a good photo of Shakespeare’s production.

  • In a Modern Theater: The play is written then rehearsed for several weeks by the actors. There is a director who guided the actors to play out his vision of the play. Each night the actors repeat the same lines, movements, motivations and responses as developed during the rehearsal process. They play the same show eight times a week. The actors are usually cast to play these specific roles and this group of actors is assembled to only play this play. While many have worked together before, for most this is their first time working together. Each actor often plays one role so as not to confuse the audience or if they do have to play more than one role, they try to disguise the fact they are doubling. The benefit in this type of playing is that psychological depth of playing the character can be developed. The attention to detail and careful integration of all of the parts can combine to make the play. However, spontaneity is sacrificed.
  • In the Elizabethan Theater: The core company of actors played together for years. They supplemented their ranks with apprentices to play the boys and females and hired men to play the small roles. They were cast by type though often played roles outside their type. They regularly played multiple roles in a play. New plays were premiered every two weeks. On the other eleven days of playing (they took Sundays off), they played something from the repertory. A successful play would be repeated not more than twice a month. This all meant that they didn’t rehearse much, or any. To revive and play an old play every day would leave very little time to rehearse the new play. We don’t know, but it might be that they did not rehearse at all, other than figure out entrances, fights, dances, and comic business.  What the production would sacrifice in depth from rehearsal would be replaced by extreme spontaneity.

  • In a Modern Theater: The text is almost fully in prose. The lines are made to be like life. The idiom, style and prosaic is intended to produce the sound of real life even if it slightly elevated or funnier. The story and text is intended to be a slice of life. It is more representational. We speak of seeing a play.
  • In the Elizabethan Theater: The play was designed as an argument with the characters fighting for the support of the audience. It debated points of views and was by nature more rhetorical. They spoke of hearing a play. Most of the play was in verse rather than prose. Verse carries thought and feeling more descriptively on its meter. The audience feels the heartbeat of meter and breaths with the actors. The language is heightened.

  • In a Modern Theater: There is a division between high art and popular entertainment. Our Broadway musicals are popular entertainments and thereby maintain many of the aspects of classical theatre. Some theater is clearly intended to be art. One interesting comparison in between outdoor and indoor Shakespeare production today: If you see a Shakespeare play indoors, it is usually intended to be art; if you see a Shakespeare play outdoors, it is usually intended to be entertainment.
  • In the Elizabethan Theater: There was no division between art and entertainment. Theatricals were required to amuse the drunk and engage the scholar. This created more balance between the two and made for a more full experience.

My description between the Modern Theatre and Elizabethan Theatre might lead you to believe that I advocate one over the other. Not so much. However, what I’m painfully aware of is what we sacrificed in the creation of Modern Theatre and I fully believe our Next theatre needs to synthesize the two traditions.

If we are to remake the theatre, we will also need to reignite theatre’s traditional strengths while employing modern performance practices in service of the story. To remake theatre, we will need to reclaim these aspects:

·         A Return to Spontaneity – The practice of recreating the same performance each night coincided with the modern era and the advent of the Director. With theater everything can change from performance to performance. What some feel is a detriment is our greatest asset.
·         Reorienting the Rehearsal – Rather than rehearsing to re-create an exact version of the play every performance, rehearsal and actor training need to realign. The goal of rehearsal will be to get good at creating the play, the thing the actors do every performance with a new audience.  
·         Developing the Actor – Audience Relationship – Our live actors can talk to and be in relationship with our live audiences. You can’t do this with film, television or video games. The same interaction that makes concerts and comedy clubs viable needs to return to the theatre.  [Read more in the Actor-Audience Relationship post]
·         Presentational rather than representational design and theater architecture – Presentational design asks more of the audience and engages them imaginatively in the play (both the production and the activity of playing).  It is cheaper to produce and we can’t compete on the same playing field with film.
·         Return of rhetoric – People used to go to hear a play rather than see a play. The emphasis was on what was being said over what was being done. The play was referred to as the argument. Plays were a discussion and argument. The characters held a point of view and the argument between the characters was a much a debate for the opinion of the audience as it was the telling of a story. The slice of life realism lacks the audience engagement of a good debate.
·         Theatre experienced aurally and visually – We need to get back to combining the full impact on the senses that theatre can be. 
·         Human – Theatre is a human experience.  It is not technological. The audience can be in relationship with a human living, feeling, saying and doing amazing human feats like being present as their world fall apart. We know what it is to be human.  We can learn from that. Theater brings together people and creates a profound sense of community, being all in this together. We have less and less of that experience in our contemporary technological age.[iii]
Theatre is meant to be an experience. It is unlike going to a movie, hearing a lecture or going to a concert. It is unlike going to see football or some other sport. It is unlike watching your television or playing a video game. It is a unique experience. It should be a seriously fun ride that makes you run to the back of the line and ride again as soon as you can. We can only get back to that experience when theatre gets back some of what it lost. When theatre stops trying to be something it isn't and gets back to being what it was, theatre.

[i] I chose Elizabethan Theater because it was inspired by the Greek and Roman Classical Theater but was a thing very much of itself. It was also, what I would call an evolutionary dead end, like the Neanderthal. In 1642, Cromwell deposed King Charles I and created the Commonwealth. Under him and the religious puritans the public theaters, the pride of the Elizabethan Age, were closed and torn down. When theater returned with the Restoration of the monarchy, it was a very different animal based on the court’s experience exiled in France and their fear of public gatherings. You know, you get a crowd of people in a theatre, the next thing you know their talking sedition and planning a revolution.

Modern Theater, especially the type that could be called Realism, began in the 1880s. It gathered steam in the early part of the 20th century and reached a pinnacle by mid-century. However, this production of August: Osage County, which I admire and truly enjoyed when I saw it, is an example of how pervasive and persistent realism is in the American Theatre. I worked at Actors Theatre of Louisville for years. It was famous for “Kitchen Realism” plays, like Crimes of the Heart and ‘Night Mother. Also, I’m also not saying that the 20th Century did not have many theater movements that expanded and revolted from realism. It just that the dominate form is realism. Many of the differences between Elizabethan Theatre and Modern Realism are also applicable to other modern theatre forms and experiments. If you don’t know the play, Wikipedia has a synopsis:

[ii] For more information: Imperial Theater
Photo from the Playing Shakespeare website. This was terrific series on acting Shakespeare (1982) taught by John Barton, lead teacher f the Royal Shakespeare Company: Shakespeare’s Globe website

[iii] There’s a great book on the decline of community that I read a few years ago. It is call BOWLING ALONE: The Collapse and Revival of America Community.


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