By all rights, I should be blogging about St Joan from Theatre Bedlam right now, since it is next in line of what I saw, however, I am saving that one for when I have more time. (I will say this about that show though, RUN don’t walk to see it before it closes – look, I even linked it!)
Today, I want to talk about the Mabou Mine’s workshop production of “Electric Bathing”. The premise of this show is simple (stolen from the web site): Coney Island circa 1910. Two garment factory workers escape from respectability into a world of fantasy where shirtwaists become kites, fans transform into seagulls, hatboxes are rides, spools of thread are anchors, and ropes are the ocean tide.
But here’s the thing, this show was done by two women, no real words (though some vocalizations), and lots of imagination. This show reminded me why we call them plays.
Sarah Provost and Lake Simons who created and performed in the show, also created all of the elaborate props needed. The props themselves were wonderful as well.
My two favorite theatres in the world are the Red Moon Theatre and House Theatre, both in Chicago Illinois. (Ok, that’s based on one show each, so maybe I am being a bit strong, but really, they were AMAZING shows… so anyway…)
Electric Bathing did what Red Moon and House did. It was theatre of play, of toys and imagination, of magic.
One of the things I love the most about theatre, that I always seem to forget until I see it done well, is the sense of play. See, in theatre we create worlds out of nothing; out of lights, sound, sets, props, our own imagination – and then we show it to the world and try to bring them into our world too. This is the essence of all theatre. How do we create a world with nothing to tell a story that only exists in words, how do we bring those words to life in a way that invites our audience into our world – sometimes offering them a cup of coffee, sometimes offering them a slap in the face – always asking them to listen and look?
I’m not saying there aren’t a million “right” ways to do it, because there are. I think Hurt Village did it, as did Lady from Dubuque and Broken Heart, and St Joan DEF did it. But these shows did it differently – not wrong, but differently. Most shows try to hide this illusion – we call this theatrical realism, or sometimes naturalism - and when shows are good at it, we go along for the ride, accepting without thinking about what is happening – to be fair, mostly because most worlds are so close to our own, or at least in the type of world we, as adults, like to pretend we live in. And, again, don’t get me wrong, this is a brilliant form of storytelling (ok, it can be, it def does not have to be.)
And then, every once in awhile, a show comes along and says – hey, here’s the trick, the bunny was up my sleeve the whole time. And it reveals to us what theatre is. This show did that. The girls created the double world in front of us. The outside world of the shirt factory, but, more importantly, the inside world of two girls going to the beach. The characters looked at their world of the shirt factory and said - how can I change this? And they did. They made a roller-coaster out of post cards, and swam through the water that the created out of thread. The used the world around them to create the world they wanted to be in.
Shows like this remind us that people who create the theatrical arts don’t always see the world the way others do – because in the landscape of the theatrical world it not only isn’t weird to see the world differently, but also it helps the artist's survival within the art form. I believe that some of the best theatrical practitioners I work with challenge my view of the world itself. They look at the world and see not just reality, but also what it could be – the look at the spool of thread and see the thread, and also the ocean. And that is amazing to me. This ability to create with the mind, and communicate what you see to someone else – that I think is the key to all theatrical talent. The rest (and there is a lot of “the rest” – vocal work, body movement, text analysis etc) means nothing if that basic foundation isn’t there.
It is, I think, why we call them plays. Children do this naturally, in play, all the time. My nephew tells me when we play – here, you be this one, it’s the bad car. I’ll be this one, it’s the good car. Boom! World created and communicated. If you have ever seen children at play, you know exactly what I mean. What’s amazing to me though, both with children and artists, is that we often lose sight of the fact that the creation if on going, and that the creation is the point. The beauty in life is in the ability to create. I think that is what draws humans to art, because it is something we need (if not, outsider art would have no reason to exist).
And theatre is that shared experience of creation. We, the theatrical practitioners, start the creation, and it is finished each night when it goes in front of an audience who also must share in the creation act. Each night we must begin again, and at the end of the night, the creation is dead and gone.
What does this mean for me? This means I want to try to hold this thought in my head for awhile. I want to try to remember what theatre is at its basic level. I want to infuse my actors with the act of creation. And maybe, in doing all that, remind the audience that the world is always so much more than the eyes see – the world should be seen with the mind and most importantly, with the heart.