Monday, April 23, 2012

Wit (NYC)

Wow.  I am so very far behind on blogging.  Let’s see what I can do to catch up.  Tonight, I have a lot of things on my mind that only nominally relate to any show I’ve seen lately.  So, I’m starting with a quick show, and then quickly and tangentially talking about something else instead.  (Also, sit back and put your seat belt on, this is gonna be a long one – enjoy the ride)

Wit, as performed by the wonderful Cynthia Nixon, was almost a phenomenal show.  And here’s what I mean by that.  Cynthia did an amazing job.  The script is quite touching and moving.  The rest of the cast handled their multiple rolls very well.  The set was very well done.  I bawled like a baby (through most of the play AND on the walk home…)  All in all, it was a great performance.  
Except for this: 

Ok, I’m just going to say it.  I don’t pay full price to see shows, I can’t afford it.  Therefore, I buy student tickets, or discounted tickets, or rush tickets, or…  And, I do in fact get that I am sitting in the “cheap” seats.  

For those who are not aware of this script, there is lots of actual audience contact written in the script itself.  Dr Vivian Bearing (that would be the lead, and the roll that Cynthia Nixon played) spends, I would say, at least half of her time directly talking to the audience, guiding them from scene to scene, explaining what was happening, what will happen, what had happened.  And, in the case of this production, she did it standing on the edge of the set while things happened behind her. 
Having said that, I sat in the front row of the balcony for Wit, leaning on forward – elbows on my knees, head in my hands (as I watch most shows I enjoy).  So, when I say this next thing, I can be pretty sure about it.  Not once in the entire play did Cynthia Nixon look up at the balcony seating. 
Ok.  I am willing to admit, I know I get the cheap seats, and that there is a price to pay for that, and I know that it might have just been an off night - but really, not once? 

And here is where, what can only be described as the first of two rants begins:

This is not the first time that I have felt like a theatre hasn’t cared about me because I am not able to buy the expensive seats.  For instance, a few years ago when I went to see a show at BAM, I was upstairs, in the cheap seats, where we were given a Xeroxed copy of a play bill, versus the downstairs version which was the nice colored “normal” version of the playbill. 

Here’s the thing, I realize that the people who can afford the expensive seats are important, I do.  However, I think if direct audience contact is part of the show, that all the audience should be contacted.  I mean, the idea behind cheap seats (at least I thought this was the idea) was to bring in people (like students) to form a future audience – one that may not be able to pay much now, but will in the future.  (And also, to sell the tickets that people who have the money for the orchestra won’t buy because they are too far away from the stage)

So, if at least one point of them is to expand the theatre going audience, shouldn’t we, as theatre practitioners want to give them an experience worth repeating?  I’m not saying that all lines should be taken to the cheap seats, but shouldn’t some of them?  Shouldn’t the people in the cheap seats feel as much as part of the show as the people in the expensive seats? 

This has been a pet peeve of mine for a long time, one I have actually voiced before.  All members of the audience are (ideally) paying, and on that level all deserve the same show as anyone else.  I understand that across nights this can be difficult, that off nights happen, as do accidents and injuries.  However, as theatre practitioner, isn’t this why we have rehearsals – so we can minimize the risks and maximize the story telling? 

John Madden (the director, not the football player) once said about rehearsals “The only reason that one rehearse to that degree when one rehearses a play is that actors don’t need to discover it once – for a play they need to discover it repeatedly, night after night.  Which means they have to understand the process, they have to understand their own instincts, as it were.  They have to deconstruct their own instinct, so they can then assemble them and repeat what they were doing instinctively.” 
Why should they have to repeat it?  Oh, that’s right, so that multiple audiences get the same story – or as close as you can have to the same story in a live performance.  (Which, again, I realize varies nightly – I do, however, think that the belief is a reasonable one). 

Here’s the thing – I don’t actually think that every version has to be the same – for instance, I don’t believe every version of Romeo and Juliet should be in Elizabethan garment’s.  I think doing R&J as a rock opera is a perfectly reasonable way to tell a different story.  I just feel that the story you tell per production should be the same.  That’s not to much to ask, is it?
And while I’m talking about different productions telling different stories, I want to start rant #2. 

Twice in the last week I have gotten into a conversation about “ur” material (for lack of better word).  Ur stories or works, in folklore terms (yes, I have a minor in folklore – specifically fairy tales) is the original source material for a story.  Except, and here’s the important part, folklorist stopped looking for the "ur" story awhile ago, if I remember correctly, sometime around the 1920’s and 30’s.  They stopped looking for it because they realized it doesn’t exist.   It doesn’t exist because there is no such thing as an original story.  Every story started some where else, and every story has elements from other stories.  Just look at Shakes (oh, it’s his birth and death day today too!)  Arguably one of the greatest English writers in history – and all of his plots were pretty directly lifted from other places.  But that’s not what made him so great. 

As an artist and a storyteller, I don't believe in "source material". I'm sorry, there are only so many stories to tell in the first place that trying to trace things down to their sort of "ur" state is ridiculous, time consuming, and pointless. Instead of doing so, perhaps we as audience should ask ourselves if the new story was well told.

Here's the thing, if what I said isn't true THAN MY WHOLE POINT IN LIVING IS WORTHLESS (by that I mean theatre).  Since, by it’s very essence, that is *exactly* what theatre is/does.

No one looks at Romeo and Juliet and says, "Oh, you can't do that.  Shakes wouldn't have done that," because theatre isn't about that, shouldn’t be about that.  It's about telling a good story. Telling your story.  Telling your story well – regardless of where the plot points may or may not have come from. 

I feel like all of this is very close to the author’s intent riff AND even the riff about race inside theatre.  I feel like all of these discussions are related to each other.  I feel like I have more to pull out about all of these things, to connect them more firmly.  Perhaps I will work on organizing those thoughts for a later post. 

But until then, what do you think?  

Monday, April 2, 2012

Good Person of Szechwan (NYC)

So, I am still in the process of trying to catch up on the back log of shows I’ve seen in the last few weeks, I am skipping ahead.

First, some history on why I am so behind – if you have read the other posts in this blog, you will notice two blogs that are not about theatre. Yea, true story, I accidentally started a grassroots political movement a few weeks ago, and it has taken over my life. I have never really thought of myself as political, but I did this thing, and it’s been amazing. I love it! And I can’t believe I have gotten so many people to respond and stand with me!

This, however, is also why I want to skip forward in my blog. I saw Good Person of Szechwan by Berthold Brecht. For those of you who know me, I have a Brecht thing. I love him. Really because I was forced to write a paper on Artaud in college, and I discovered I HATED him, and Brecht is about as opposite of Artaud are you can get… Therefore, I developed a fondness for him.

This was, in point of fact, the first live Brecht show I have ever been able to see. And that in and of itself was very exciting for me. Also, this show was especially timely to me at the moment, due to my movement happening right now as I type.

Here’s the thing about Brecht, my favorite one sentence description of him is : Brecht wanted to change your vote. Brecht’s work is about creating a better society. Brecht’s work is about being the change you want to see in the world. And Good Person is no exception. Brecth’s work challenges the audience not to passively enjoy theatre, but to actively do something about the society in which you live – to change what you’re doing and, in more modern words, to be the change you wish to see. The whole point of his works is to point out how flawed society is, and that only we can change it. (Thus, I was very much drawn to the show for today’s blog).

As far as this show itself, I have to say, there were some problems with it as a whole. Believe it or not, I am actually not anti-three hour productions of older plays that were written to be three hours. I am, however, extremely against things that make already long shows longer. For instance, set changes. This production changed the set for every scene (there were 11 of them) as well as flashing the name of the scene on the screen. The problem is that each scene change was at least a minute long, sometimes two, which means that at least 15 minutes, if not closer to 20 was added to the show. Interestingly, I think especially in a piece like Brecht, scene changes are entirely not necessary. For instance, the first scene in which the water seller was going to people houses, those “houses” were signs made of cardboard – pretty classic Brechtain technique – also, effective and short and sweet – and entire world was made in the time it took to raise a sign. One of the more interesting things to me about this choice is the director’s notes in the program that state “once one falls through the rabbit hole of questioning all assumptions, one realizes what it is to read, perform, and watch brecht” Except that isn’t fully what happened, only some theatrical assumptions were challenged. I feel like it could have been a stronger (and much shorter) production if more assumptions were challenged.

I also had some problems with the music in this performance. Music is an integral part of Brecht’s alienation effect. The problem with the music in this production is that it was incomprehensible – as in the octaves that they were singing in were so high that the audience could not understand what they were saying. To fix this, they provided the lyrics in the program. (I have serious problems with the inability to tell a story without program notes. Look, I already wrote about it.) I feel like the musical arrangement was not conducive to Brecht’s point of having the songs in the first place. The inability to understand the lyrics in the context of the show lost both the actual stand that Brecht was trying to make in the lyrics and added length to an already long show. There is never a call to have an audience sit for 3+ minutes listening to something that they cannot understand – especially if the point of the lyrics in the first place is to reinforce the playwright’s ideas of what his play is saying.

Having said all this, it would sound as if I didn’t like the show – in point of fact, I did, very much, like the show. I think it did most things very well. I think it made most of Brecht’s points very well. I think it was clear and understandable. I think it handled most of the alienation techniques very well. To me, the points above stuck out so strongly because the rest of the show was so well done.

Brecht’s epilogue at the end is clearly a call for us to change what is happening in society, to create a society in which it is possible to be both good and live well – and that it is up to us – the audience to effect that change. (To be fair, it is important to remember anytime you are speaking of Brecht that he was a HARDCORE Marxist, and his shows revolve around changing your way of thinking to his. The man wasn’t soft, he wanted a Marxist revolution and believed theatre was a way to propagate the ideas – heck, even his longtime composer and collaborator, Kurt Weill, eventually left him in the end saying something along the lines of: there are only so many times I can put the Communist Manifesto to music. Make no mistake, Brecht's work is not open ended, he very clearly wanted, in all his work, to change your vote - to get you to agree with him.)

What I love about Brecht, even if I am not sure about his actual politics, is that he always questions us about what we are doing. He creates a space in which theatre is part of a larger discussion – it isn’t just 2-3 hours of your life one night, it is your life – and you have to decide how to live it.

I think that is so very important for all of us to remember. And to remember that theatre can be a place for education and change. I would love to see our generation’s Brecht, the person who truly questions what theatre is today, and how to best use it to affect societal change. I wonder who that person will be and what that theatre will look like. It's exciting work to think about!

Social Movement, Now what?