Theatre Arts: The Open Art Form

In my estimation, there’s nothing like live theatre. It’s the most intimate art form. The most personal art form. The most human art form. The most ephemeral art form.

Unlike a painting or a sculpture, the theatre arts is an open art form. When was the last time the Mona Lisa changed her smile? When was the last time Michelangelo’s David scratched an itch? In contrast, when was the last time you saw a play two days in a row and it was exactly the same? Never on all three counts. This is the beauty of the dramatic arts.

When I talk about theatre with my new students who have never acted before, I ask them these two questions:

  • At the intermission of a play, what does the audience talk about? Invariably, the answer is “The first half of the play,” or “What they liked or didn’t like,” or “What’s going to happen next.

Then I ask them the follow-up question?

  • During intermission, what are the actors talking about backstage?

The answer to most of them who have never acted before is not as obvious. But if you’ve ever been backstage during intermission, it’s very clear what the focus is on. The actors are talking about the audience. Is it a good audience? Is it a bad audience? Why didn’t they laugh at that certain part? Why did they laugh at that certain part.

Those are fun conversations to take part of because every audience is different, which means that every show is different. In an open art form, the audience impacts the performers and the performers impact the audience. It’s that interaction, that synergy which, in my estimation, raises the theatre arts to a whole new level of artistic expression.

Live theatre displays humanity in all its glory with all its warts. It can reach deep inside someone’s heart and affect them in ways you would not imagine. A few years back, I had a woman come to me after watching one of the shows I had written and directed. I had never seen this woman before. She had tears in her eyes, and she gave me a huge hug, thanking me for what she saw. She said it meant so much to her. I was flabbergasted to say the least. There’s no greater compliment as an artist than to affect change, encourage conversation, inspire action, and impact a member of the audience.

That’s why I can’t understand when people say they don’t like drama. That drama is too boring. To me, it’s the same as saying “I don’t like humanity.”

 

Advertisements

It’s not the words. It’s the emotion behind the words.

I was working with one of my actors on a pivotal scene in our upcoming play. She gives a short speech which spurs on some tremendous societal changes. Yes, it’s a few lines of dialogue which changes the story dramatically. It’s the crucial point in the play.

The actor had not been getting it. The speech she has been giving in rehearsal has been flat and unemotional. Today, I pulled her aside to correct it, and I started by saying: “It’s not the words. Don’t worry about what you are going to say. Work on how you prepare to say the words.”

First off, as a playwright, I was horrified at myself. Don’t worry about the words??? Am I crazy? But as a director, I needed to shift her away from the words because the words were hollow to her. I told her, if she can put herself in the right emotional state, then the words will flow appropriately and I won’t even have to tell her how to say the words. She will say them authentically.

So we put down the script, and we walked through the scene. We focused on the action, the moment, the setting, the character’s emotional connection to what had just happened. Then we designed a set of actions, a slow plodding walk, a purposeful turn, hands coming to her face. We dug deep into the feelings she had, the sadness she felt about what had happened. She forced herself to block our her surroundings and focus on the feeling in her chest.

She walked slowly into position, she raised her hands over her face, she put her head down, then lifted her eyes into the auditorium and started to speak. Her voice crackled, slight tears formed in the corners of her eyes, and she raised her voice strong and spoke the words – words which at the last rehearsal were flat and ineffective. Now they were purposeful, emotional, powerful, and perfect.

Young actors focus so much on the words, wondering how to say the lines. But a little exploration of the scene and some purposeful movement and trigger mechanisms can make the words flow naturally from the emotion and action of the actor. This is when the magic happens.

So, playwright, at times you have to take a back seat because the meaning of the words will only reach peak impact if they are said with the emotion and attitude of the actor.

Well done, young actor. And that was just one short rehearsal. I can’t wait to see the final result.

2013: Looking Back on My Year in Writing

2013 looks like it might take the title for me as the most prolific writing year I ever had. Here are the highlights:

January – May

  • Published the paperback version of Beauty Rising
  • Wrote mini-musical “Captured in Time & Space” and the short play “No in Spite of Itself”
  • Started writing my third novel, The Reach of the Banyan Tree
  • Finished and submitted my Master’s thesis (about 75 pages including citations – approved in May.): NINETEEN FORTY-FIVE INDOCHINA BETWEEN RHETORIC AND REALITY: The Shifting Policies of the Roosevelt and Truman Administrations

June – August

  • Finished writing my third novel in early July.
  • Wrote seven short plays – “Black & White”, “Skydiver”, “The Loudest Child in Church”, “I Once Was Blind”, “Jerome, The Malevolent God-King”, “The Giant Squid that Ate Georgetown”
  • Finished final editing for my second novel, The Recluse Storyteller

Sept – Dec

  • My play “No in Spite of Itself” won best script in 2013 Short & Sweet Festival Penang
  • Published my second novel, The Recluse Storyteller  (Oct)
  • My musical “Captured in Time & Space” and “Almighty Might” were performed as part of the Short & Sweet Festival KL
  • I wrote (with a group of student writers) a full-length musical, Boardwalk Melody, to be produced in 2014.
  • I directed my drama troupe’s production of “RLT Players present ‘Captured in Time & Space.'”
  • I wrote a Christmas short story, “Angel on the Courthouse”, for my hometown paper “The Butler Eagle”.
  • I started writing my fourth novel. To be finished in 2014.

Very fun and productive year. Much more to look forward to in 2014! I’ll highlight that in my next post.

Who’s Romantic, and Who’s the Fool?

Let’s talk about romance.

A while back, I went to the theater to see a play called “Romantic Fools.” It was a local production of an off-Broadway hit (perhaps it was on Broadway at some point – I don’t know.)

From the promotional material, I thought it would be a nice evening out for my wife and I – I even pulled some strings and got free tickets. Should be great, right? Light-hearted romantic romp, some good jousting back and forth about the funny conflicts of the sexes, some situation comedy, ending with the guy getting the girl of his dreams, etc… you know what I mean – romance.

I should have known better. This is modern theater after all.

It had nothing to do with romance – it was all about sex to the lowest common denominator, and it really ticked me off – and it made us leave the theater even before intermission.  This had nothing to do with the acting. Some of the actors were quite talented. It had nothing to do with the sets which were done tastefully and creatively. It had everything to do with the writing. Someone who doesn’t know the first thing about romance had the audacity to call this a romantic play. No. It wasn’t.

Before I get more specific with my critique of the debasing of love and romance in our modern culture, let me make a few things clear about what I believe as a writer and, even, audience member concerning love, romance, and sex in literature or performing arts.

There are certain things in my own writing that I would never describe or never say because I believe they would be completely unnecessary and detract from the story rather than enhance the story. But I understand how a well phrased word, even a word that makes some people uncomfortable, can add the force or effect of a scene or situation. If a writer includes a scene that visually I may be uncomfortable with but is crucially necessary to get across an emotion or effect that could not be achieved any other way, then I’m personally okay with that. I don’t believe that every piece of literature, play, or movie needs to be PG. We live in a messy and even funny world where crazy things sometimes happen. I get that, and I’m okay with portraying that.

But, when we devolve romance to nothing more than a degrading spectacle of gratuitous sex that shows no consequences, no love, no romance, and no reality, then I call it lazy, modern writing.

We see it all the time. Just turn on the TV. Just watch a comedy in the cinema. Pick any one. It doesn’t matter. They are all the same.

Big laughs – at what? Hookers? Sado-masochism? Anything-goes no consequences decisions? The degradation of women? All of this was being portrayed in this play as the epitome of romance.

The comedy writers of today have bought into the lie that all the public wants – all the public needs is a few dirty jokes, a few degradating images and then they’ve done their job.

Where’s the creativity? Where’s the plot-lines that speak of true tensions between real men and real women?

Where are the writers who believe it is more effective to understate and allude – leaving the audience or reader to imagine or think through things?

You’ve probably seen this quote from Hitchcock before:

“Suspense is like a woman. The more left to the imagination, the more the excitement…”

I would say that good romance is like that too. Say a lot through what you don’t say. That, in my estimation, is one of the true marks of a good writer. One can be vulgar without swearing. One can be alluring and romantic without having to be on a nude beach.

I really felt bad for those actors who had to “act” like they were being romantic in a play that wasn’t remotely about romance.

Perhaps it’s time to for me to put up and write the kind of romance I’ve been rambling about here. Stay tuned.

What’s your take on all of this?