Monday, November 14, 2011

A Quick Thought on Precision in the Theatre

Recently, I saw a play at one of the larger theaters in town that solidified a belief I've had for quite some time now.

Let me start by saying I thought the play was very well done. It was a solid piece of engaging and important theatrical art. The actors were all incredibly available, their navigation of the stage was alive and purposeful, and the production values were first rate. I was impressed.

But not as much as I could have been.

Even though everything was seemingly in place for this production to be successful (And considering I bought the last ticket that night, success wasn't a problem.) the one crucial piece missing, at least for me, was a concrete sense of communal precision in the work I witnessed.

Let me explain.

As I watched the show, it became clear to me that I was observing a wonderful group of inspired and talented actors who were hindered by constraints of the modern approach to producing a piece of theatre. On average, the typical play is rehearsed for about four to five weeks. The actors meet on the first day; perhaps they know each other from other shows or they could be meeting for the first time. The play is read at a table, there is discussion of what it means and what's being said, then everyone goes home to begin memorizing lines and doing their individual work. From then on, the destination is opening night. The attention is given primarily to staging the show and incorporating the technical aspects of the production. And yes, there is time for continued discussion and debate, but that type of exploration can never outweigh the primary objective of opening the play.

However, there was a time in the theatre where instead of rehearsing for only four or five weeks, a company of artists would spend four to five months working on a play. Actors were given the time and space to truly explore the more nuanced and complex aspects of the script. More time was available to develop a common vocal and physical vocabulary that more appropriately served the ensemble and the production. The cast had the opportunity to know and understand each other's personal aesthetics with more depth and intimacy. All things considered, this type of rehearsal timeline always produces more consistent, inspired, and precise work. In fact, a friend of mine in New York just began a rehearsal process that is scheduled to take an entire year! Think about how good you could be at something if you gave yourself an entire year to practice it. Imagine how brilliant you would be.

This is a major issue in our current theatre culture. Too often are good performers from differing artistic points-of-view and training backgrounds thrown together and expected to "make the magic happen". Sometimes it comes together beautifully, other times it falls flat. And there are many gradations in between.

I say let's take the guess work out of it. Let's make well defined, precise, and penetrating pieces of theatre all the time. And for god's sake, let's give ourselves the time we need to do it.


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