window gobo

What if we banned them all tomorrow

Some more thoughts in relation to an early entry focused on issues of things that theater isn’t making the most advantage of.

I think innovation can come in two modes: form and content. Content revolves around the material that the work explores. Form revolves around the ways that content is delivered. For this essay I’d like to talk a little about form. Though, I’ll point out that there is definitely another one to be written about the ways we need to diversify the content of theater works as well.

Form is the way in which we deliver our message. In some sense, it is the traditions we keep about what it means to see a play, to go to the theater, to take part in a live dramatic experience. Sometimes the conversation centers on the experimental means people use to deliver their content and how that’s different than the norm. To me, that’s only half the conversation.

It’s not fair to hold new modes of form delivery to a higher standard of examination. If we get to ask what the usefulness of Sleep No More’s unique delivery system is, we should be asking the same thing about Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. To ignore the conventions of form of “regular” theater is to obscure the fact that many of the “givens” about the way modern audiences usually see plays are not at all native to the art form. They seem normal because they are the way most people do things. But there’s nothing rigidly requiring them.

I thought it might be interesting to look at some often seen theater conventions with fresh eyes. So first off, what does it mean for something to be a convention?

Two relevant definitions from the dictionary:

– A general agreement about basic principles or procedures; a principle or procedure accepted as true or correct by convention

An established technique, practice, or device (as in the theater)

Which means that a convention stays put because we all agree that it is a useful practice or choice. It is accepted through common use. But there is nothing to say that we can’t all change our minds about what’s useful and what should be commonly accepted. I would propose that there are plenty of theater conventions that need updating for a new era, conventions that are long past their expiration date.

I’ve been thinking a bunch lately about how we rehearse our plays in one kind of space (often sparse, in which everything is imagined) and then pile on a lot of stuff in tech. If we really didn’t need it in rehearsal to get to the play’s meaning, do we actually need it in performance? The converse point of this is of course, if we want design to really matter in performance, might we need to bring designers into the rehearsal process much earlier?

Here’s a few items for the “Please for the love of god can we all agree to stop doing this” list of theater design:

People moving scenery in the semi dark: Seriously. Why do stage hands need to run around in blacks? The idea that it somehow makes them less visible is silly. Is it possible to imagine a theater in which we create sets that do not require massive re-dressing? Could we do away with plays that would be served far better by a move jump cut? If it takes five minutes to move a bureau and change out doilies to make the space different, is this the best use of the tiny amount of time we have a captive audience? In a 2 hour show with even a modest number set changes, is it really in our best interest to spend 5 – 10% of that time moving furniture?

Bad, fake-y set painting: When you see “aging” or “dirt” on a set wall do you actually think that wall has been standing there for decades? Of course not. It almost always looks super fake. If you want me to literally believe that is aged wood you’ll have to do better. Or find a way to abstract it so I can fill in details with my own imagination.

“Expensive” and “lavish” design that looks neither expensive nor lavish: Ever notice how “rich” people in plays look like they’re wearing clothes someone bought at Goodwill’s “fancy” section as they sit on their IKEA furniture? Humans are highly attuned to what is fake. Why ask your audience to spend so much imaginative energy ignoring that you’re dressed in hand me downs?

Blue light = Night time: Have you ever gone out at 10:30pm and seen a blazing blue light covering your street? Neither have I. If everything else about your play is realistic, why does that logic suddenly break down when it comes to what darkness is? Also, if the audience can see the actors, then I don’t buy gag in which the other character can’t.

Cross gender casting and age makeup: I know you aren’t a boy. I know you aren’t 80. And if the whole story hinges on me believing it, you’re asking the viewer to do a lot of ignoring just to get to a baseline believability to start building emotional attachment.

Blackouts between scenes: I know. It’s a staple. It is probably the most common lighting cue in the whole world. But really, isn’t a blackout just a poor man’s edit cut in a movie? I think we can do better. I think we can be more creative than just turning all the lights out and running around while the audience sits there with their eyes plenty adjusted to the darkness, waiting for us to get on with the thing. Even the best sound designer in the world is not playing music that I want to watch more than the play I was just enjoying.

Sound that comes out of a speaker system and not the object on the stage: Guns, phones, doorbells, record players, radios please make the sound that the script indicates.

Living room layouts that make no logical sense: I don’t care if the sight lines are better. If no human would set up a room that way, why would you?

“Oh no! It’s raining.”: There’s no rain. Or I’d be wet. Even if you use a thunder sound cue there’s no rain on stage.

Under-thought video and radio effects: If the script calls for a video clip or radio announcer somewhere in the show, please think long and hard about whether you have the capacity to make this believable. If your budget doesn’t cover it, don’t do it.

The super fake looking TV effect: Stop with the flickering light in a box.

Window gobos: I’m not even going to elaborate here.

There are so many more. But the larger point is this: can we rethink what a theater set can and should be? A movie can always make it more real. Need to go to the Grand Canyon? You will NEVER build as a good a set as filming the real thing. So why spend tons of money to show something in a literal way when theater is able to ask audiences to imagine it?

A movie can’t gesture to a wooden beam and ask you to imagine it as a tree. A movie can’t point to the sky and call it the heavens. So why don’t we use that advantage more? Why are we spending so much time trying to literally show everything?


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