First Day at the Theatre

There’s very little that I remember with any degree of clarity from my early elementary school days. 4th and 5th grades, sure, but prior to that, not so much. That’s why the vivid recollection of one specific field trip is such a notable exception.

I remember looking forward to the trip with so much excitement as my parents signed the permission forms in the days preceding the event. I remember boarding the bus with my friends and driving the short distance to the nearby college in the adjacent town. The college had a quality theatre program, and I was going to see my first play.

Now, I can’t say that I remember the plot of the show. I remember being quite unsettled by the villain, and one line in particular as he prowled the front row, cracking through what I now know to be the fourth wall as he questioned:

“Do you know what’s in my secret formula? Well, of course you don’t!”

In short, I returned from that trip with a sense of magic. I had never seen anything like live theatre, and, obviously, it stayed with me as I’ve pursued that calling in various professional avenues from college forward, even though I’ve never made it my living exclusively. I’m so thankful that I was afforded the opportunity to experience that show. My experiences with the theatre have been amazing ever since.

This week, I was given an even more profound opportunity, a more amazing one. I had the opportunity take my daughter, with her pre-school class, to her first play.

The show was Peter Rabbit Tales, and she is already quite familiar with the original work of Peter Rabbit. She was thrilled, so excited as we counted down the days. I drove her to school, joined the caravan of vehicles that went to the arts center, and watched the traveling theatre group’s performance. Even more than the show, however, I watched my daughter’s face as she sat, literally on the edge of her seat, her eyes almost unblinking, never wavering from the stage.

I wonder if the enrapt expression on my face was similar that day so many years ago when I watched that play. I wonder if this experience will have the impact on our daughter that day had on me. I know that she has been impacted by experiencing this art in person, and I know that it was an enormously positive experience for her.

An experience in which I was able to take part.

This was one of the most amazing experiences that I’ve had as a parent, more impactful even that my first play. I am thrilled to have been able to join my daughter for her first play.

Acting In

Girl in theatrical makeup

One of my theatre professors in college talked a lot about how going out for coffee after seeing a show to discuss what you had just seen was an essential part of the experience. The audience is, after all, a part of the story, just as much as the actors on stage are, but are unique in the sense that they didn’t really know what to expect at all (it’s always in flux, but the actors have at least some idea). Talking after a show is really about de-briefing as much as anything else.

Part of the beauty of a theatrical performance is that it never really ends up the same way twice. That inconsistency is a beautiful thing, and a provocative thing. A huge part of the reason that it’s never the same performance two nights in a row is that the audience is completely different, and their reactions alter the performances of the actors on stage. Theatre isn’t so much a performing art as it is an interactive art, which is why it has become a lens for understanding communities, minorities, oppressed people groups, and theologies.

The understanding of interactivity, though, often stops with the question, what did the audience take away? The story being performed, after all, is ultimately being performed for the audience.

I’ve been involved in a lot of performances in a lot of different venues. I’ve done shows in huge auditoriums with state-of-the-art lighting equipment and elaborate sets, and I’ve done it on the street for community outreach projects with no sets or even costumes. What’s consistent is that the audience is always impacted.

What’s also consistent, though, is that the cast and crew are just as deeply impacted. And it’s not always through the performance.

I’ve learned a great deal about myself through the performances with which I’ve been involved. I’ve learned a great deal about others. I’ve learned a great deal about my faith. Theatre, in it’s capacity as a performing art, is a uniquely collaborative art. Many artists from different disciplines come together to form a production. Especially when you’ve been involved in several productions with the same group of people, you find that you’ve had a “foxhole” experience of sorts.

So, the experience for the audience is a huge part of theatre. Audience members going for coffee and discussing the show is a huge part of realizing what new things you know and appreciate about what it is to be human after a show. The cast and crew going for drinks after the curtain call is much the same. Theatre, being uniquely collaborative, is uniquely geared to delve into the experience of being human. So, whether you’re in the show or seeing the show, you’re having a deep experience with the person or people with whom you’re experiencing the show.

I just wish that the two sides…the actors and the audience…would connect and talk about what they’ve experienced more.

Have you seen a show lately? You should go do that…

Image credit: Alastair Barnsley  under Creative Commons

Virtual Theatre

Concert lights, attributed to iurte under Creative Commons

Sometimes I feel as though I’m glued to a computer screen way too much.

Now that I’ve changed careers for my day job, I spend most of my day in front of a computer writing code or designing page layouts. It’s fun, don’t get me wrong. But I lament (as does my back after several stationary hours) the loss of the chances to be more physically active that I used to have. I’m still involved in theatre, and this is a huge outlet for me to be physically active…something that I desperately need, now. Between those two things and trying to keep some kind…any kind…of writing rhythm, I stay incredibly busy.

And I continue to be amazed at how much everything is alike in so many ways.

I listened to an interview with a web designer several months ago. She, too, had worked in theatre before beginning a career in the web, so there was immediate common ground for me there. She likened scenic design to web design, and I’m inclined to agree with her. There’s a creative component and technical component to each. The scene designer begins with sketches for what the setting of the fictional world should look like. Then, logistical issues are considered. Models are built. Working construction drawings are made, and then the lumber and drills and saws come into play as the sketches begin to take shape. Everything I know about power tools I learned in a college scene shop. In my experience in the theatre, there is almost always a technical director who oversees the construction of what the designer envisioned. He or she works off the drawings the designer provides and handles the technical details of the building.

The web designer also begins with drawings, but of a digital variety. Wireframes and prototypes are built in software like Photoshop and result in a visual model of what the website will look like. A developer then takes those prototypes and begins writing the code that will build them for your browser.

I began my theatre experiences on the technical side. I spent a lot of time doing the technical work of implementing others’ designs. I did my share of designing, as well, but me and a sketchbook were awkward companions, at best. I do the same thing for the web. I do some design work, but generally only page layouts, not real graphics work. I spend a lot of my time coding what others have designed.

Another similarity is that the web has its own sort of rehearsal process. As I write this, I’m getting ready to move a big project to a testing server for a dry run of how it will work. This is only for a select few people…the world won’t see the site until we’re settled that everything works the way that we want. It’s the Internet’s version of a dress rehearsal. A tiny audience will preview what the real event will look like before the curtain goes up on opening night.

There are a lot of other similarities, as well, too many for one post, I think. Isn’t it so fascinating, though, how different disciplines are so much alike the more one gets to know them?

Photo Attribution: iurte under Creative Commons

What Doesn’t Fit?

Disclaimer: I’m not a scientist.

I do, however, watch, read, and write science fiction with a good deal of passion, and so I try my best to understand science. This usually isn’t a problem because I grasp theories and concepts pretty quickly, I just sometimes need them explained to me in more simplistic terms than the jargon of their discipline.

Here’s the thing with science-fiction, and I think that I can say this with some reliability as a source since I’ve been immersed in the genre from a young age: nothing kills the validity of the book/film/episode like an inaccuracy in the premise. Science-fiction is built on concepts of things that are somewhat scientifically plausible, and asks “what if?” they became a reality. In space opera science fiction, this can be worked around a bit by positing a world in which enormous scientific advancements in humanity have made what were once outlandish theories into everyday life. Hard science fiction is more immersed in the data of scientific hypotheses…and, I confess, often over my head in most realms. I can be conversant in some things however, and sometimes things are used incorrectly in a way that anyone could guess with only a little thought.

This popped up in an episode of the Alphas that I watched over the weekend, in which an inaccurate application of sonar was used as a critical plot point. What was really curious about this mistake is not that the ability of the character in question was implausible from a scientific point of view, but rather that it likely would not be called sonar. The wording in the script created the issue.

Any scientists that may be reading, watch the episode (season 1, episode 9) and correct me if I’m wrong.

When I’ve directed plays, one of the most common problems I’ve worked with in new actors is consistency in characterization. There’s a moment of synergy that happens when an actor finds the character so fully that the character is on stage instead of the actor. I used to call it the “spark” when I watched a play…the moment when you find yourself believing that you are watching the character instead of an actor. There can be a moment of lapsed concentration, though, a split second in which the actor does something as they would do it instead of the way the character would do it. Sitting and crossing your legs, for example, when the character wouldn’t cross their legs or sit that way. When these split-second lapses happen, it breaks the illusion of the play. The audience will almost always notice, even if they can’t pinpoint why the scene suddenly feels wrong.

Presenting scientific inaccuracies in science fiction has a similar way of breaking the illusion. Even when dealing with the completely speculative theories of fringe science, the premise has to be explained in a manner that makes it somewhat plausible to the audience or reader. I suppose it bothers some of us more than others, but I think anyone watching or reading science fiction would find themselves aware of something wrong in the scene without necessarily immediately being able to identify what that something is.

Inaccuracies in acting can spoil a scene on the stage, and inaccuracies in writing or directing can spoil a scene on the page or screen. Research and editing fixes these inaccuracies easily enough, though. Perhaps it’s an issue of not rushing a finished product in order to ensure enough time for this research and editing? That would mean a world without deadlines.

I could certainly live with that.

Photo Attribution: INTVGene  under Creative Commons

The Watchmen and the Phantom: Not as Good as the Original

Several months ago, this showed up in my Facebook feed:

And I thought to myself, there’s nothing quite like a sequel to degrade one of the greatest stories ever told on the stage.

You see, I have a long love affair with the Phantom. I have had since high school. I’m not certain why. I think that the poignant story and the magical musical score simply enchanted me. I went to see the Broadway production during my undergrad days, and was absolutely in stunned silence at the beauty of the production. Technically, musically, artistically, the Phantom is a masterpiece.

And the issue isn’t that I’m closed-minded to adaptations and new presentations. To the contrary, I was moved nearly to tears by the film adaptation of the show that arrived in theatres a few years ago. Of course, Webber was instrumental as a writer of the film production, as well. And, in fairness, Webber is the driving force behind the new show. It’s just that some things can’t be improved upon.

Of course, the same thing goes for prequels. DC Entertainment recently announced a set of prequels to the greatest graphic novel ever published, the Watchmen. My stomach turned. Was this a blatant attempt to capitalize on an amazing work of art? Simply because they own the rights to the story and the characters, they think that they can add to what was already a complete story simply to make money? I confess that I had a similar reaction to Love Never Dies. Was Webber selling out for money? Surely, if an artist were to ever have a comfortable income, Webber would.

A friend and fellow comic collector told me that it was a surety that I would at least read the Watchmen prequels, just to see what they were about. I responded that I wouldn’t read them on principle. Truth be told, I likely will scan one in my local comic shop. I may even put the DVD of Love Never Dies into our Netflix cue, as it is apparently living on DVD due to it’s poor reception in theatres (although I have read at least one opinion that the show’s theatrical demise was unfortunate). Part of me hopes that the Watchmen prequels are received poorly, as Moore has said that he accomplished everything he intended to in the original collection. Moore reportedly isn’t happy about the project, and I don’t think he was a fan of the film, either (for good reason…it was a disaster).

Still, the two projects are different in that, with Love Never Dies, at least the original writer is responsible for the project’s creation. And, I have to admit, from a design perspective, the show looks intriguing.  I think, however, that I’m just stubborn enough to eschew both projects, simply because I don’t want to give in to what I see as selling out amazing work in order to make profit from the original.

Am I doing myself a disservice in my stubbornness? Would you see/read either of these? What do you think?