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?  


  1. Funnily enough, I anticipated your response to Cynthia not addressing the balcony. That was my first question actually when you mentioned she addressed the audience about 50% of the performance, 'Did she address ALL of the audience or just the front rows?' I'm surprised someone as seasoned as Cynthia didn't give at least one nod to the balcony. Anywho, I'm also with you on 'the story is king' motif. As a story teller, it is nearly impossible to come up with an original idea that hasn't been thought of before in one way shape or form. The key is the individual storyteller's voice and how they tell the story. At the end of the day, the story and how it is told is the most important aspect (in my opinion). Which brings me back to the original point, shouldn't the entire audience be a part of that story? Aren't the patrons in the 'cheap seats' contributing just as much to energy of the experience as the 'pricier seats'? This is a great topic, even for experiences where the actors don't need to address the audience.

  2. Oh also - have you seen Streetcar yet? Dying to know how it was or what people thought.

  3. No Streetcar yet. Prob on May 5. :) I am PUMPED!

    And to be honest, I was really surprised to be ignored too. I'm hoping it was just an off night...