Sharing the Process

Adrienne and I just opened The Children’s Hour with EgoPo Classic Theater, with her as guest director and me as stage manager/dramaturg. It’s an intense, dramatic play that takes the audience through a roller coaster of emotions as the lives of the characters fall apart.

But despite the emotional investment the performances demand, as I sit behind the semi-transparent black curtain that separates my tech booth from the performance space, I can’t help feeling like the audience is missing half the experience, if not more. Our rehearsals included hours of conversation and exploration, of developing backstory and relationships and searching for answers to difficult questions. We fought tooth and nail – sometimes even against what was written on the page – to build the characters into real people instead of archetypes, with sympathetic motives for the choices they made, good or bad. Once in an early rehearsal, I came out of the studio to the lounge to gather actors for the next scene, and when I apologized for being behind schedule, they responded unanimously that they were not upset at all, that they’d loved having the time to sit and talk about the play.

The audience doesn’t generally get to see this part. Of course, the purpose and goal of all the exercises and conversations is to create layers that will exist in performance even without explicit knowledge of where they came from. And doing the work definitely makes a better end product. But even so, when a friend asked me how the play was going, I told him it was great, but that I felt like I’d gotten a lot more out of the rehearsal process than I do now being in performance.

Here’s the thing. A big part of why I wanted to pursue theatre as a career is because of how much I love the process. I love learning new things about empathy and humanity from how different people interpret words or ideas. I love asking questions and the eureka moments when something finally clicks into place. And it’s great that theater-makers get to experience this. But for theater to continue serving a purpose in the contemporary world, we can’t be doing it just for the joy we get out of it. We have to make and share theater in such a way that the impact it has on audiences is as powerful as the impact it has on the artists creating it.

And if the most impacting part of the work is often the process rather than the product, and we want the audience to have as effecting an experience as possible, then syllogism tells us that we should bring the audience more into the process. Like the special features that are probably one of the only reasons people still buy hard copies of some films, or backstage passes that let people see behind the scenes of rock concerts, or the Pottermore website JK Rowling created to share more of the secrets of the Harry Potter world that have been only in her head for so long. All these things open a window into process, into how a product reached its end-state. And people love it.

Process-orientation has been part of the Swim Pony mission for a long time, both in the kind of work we do and in how we share and develop it with our community. But we’re excited to do even more. We’re excited to further develop an artistic community that’s about dialogue and openness from the beginning, rather than one that presents a streamlined finished product that only scratches the surface of what went before. I hope you’re as excited about it as we are.



Quick note : for those interested in the women in theater conversation there’s more coming your way. I am trying to get some more data together and want to also include some thoughts about the data that I’ve already put out there, so stay tuned later this week for that.

But for today: Something I’ve been thinking about lately is efficiency.

On some levels one could say that theater isn’t efficient at all. There’s nothing easy about creating work, in fact the easier the work is to create, the more rote or robotic, the less I personally tend to be interested in it. This is efficiency for efficiency sake alone.

This is not what I mean when I ask, “Can we be more efficient?” No, I am asking if we can be more streamlined in the path to the goal we strive towards.  In other words, how can we be most efficient at the need we are sating?

And to do that let us first ask: why do we do it, what is the base need to create artwork? I think it’s something to do with our own necessity to express and the need of others to listen. We are telling stories, making music, and moving bodies and in experiencing those things our audiences uncover something about themselves. It’s like a communion of infinite variety – magically shifting the experience of one into the bodies of many.

On one level, the standard four week process is rather efficient, isn’t it? We all know what to expect, when things will arrive, how the art will progress from start to finish. There are, of course, deviations but there is a kind of simplicity in knowing how the process is supposed to work. But is it efficient at delivering this communion? Does this process get us closer quicker to the ability to give a piece of ourselves with those that might take it in?

I don’t know.

Increasingly, in this time when many theaters are losing funding and audience base, I hear stories of shows with rehearsal process that are condensed to three (two?!) weeks of rehearsal. There is this way that we say, there’s simply less room, less resource, less money, so we have to be more efficient with our time. But. But. But… Is it? Is it more efficient? We have shortened the time we take, we have lessened the money that costs, but have we made ourselves more efficient at the ultimate goal?  Many days I look at that model and wonder if there’s actually a palpable difference in the outcome. Or is this simply a more efficient means to create something?

I don’t think so.

I think we can feel the difference. I think the audience can too. Even if they can’t articulate why, I think they just know when someone has just started working out a first good idea instead of the third, forth, eight, tenth, deeper and more realized choice. I think this kind of efficiency gets the “job” done, but to what end? I think it prizes the output over the process. I think it makes the external trappings of the product the parts that we place the most value on.

Naïve. Simple. Dreamer. Call me what you want. You can tell me that I don’t know what it’s like to work in the “real” world.

But I wonder if we all have to define “real” art in the same way. I wonder if we haven’t all deluded ourselves into accepting a much narrower definition of our form than is necessary.

When you started creating theater, what was the context?

Was it in a flashy space? Was it with hugely expensive surroundings? I doubt it.

If you’re like me it was in a class in a basement without any stuff. You fell in love with that first moment you saw an actor really transform into a character. You swooned a bit when a designer took a single light and flashed it across a wall in a way you’d never seen before. You adored the director that first changed how you thought about a scene. One found grandeur in such tiny things, and that somehow in all this nothing, something was able to emerge. It is in the midst of this dingy room with its banged up chairs that we find our capacity to create.

And that, I think, is the real efficiency. It’s that with nothing that is tangibly expensive or valuable we create beauty or pain, feelings that are deep and real and genuinely meaningful. We make something so real out of things that are so obviously made up.

The traditional stage with set and lights and sound and costumes and velvet curtain and seats and air conditioning, and lobby and box office – is it efficient?

I don’t think so.

What is theater? Ask yourself. Is it a script?  Is it character? Is it telling a story? Is it moving people through space? Is it visual splendor? Is it interplay of light, sound or object over time? Is it some combination of all of these things?

If you know what theater is to you, then ask yourself if you are getting there most efficiently?

Is that other stuff getting in the way of actually getting to the real thing?

Is that push towards “professionalism” actually pulling you from making the thing you desire?

Is it possible that theater is at its core something more basic, more internal, more directly accessed than we’ve made it out to be? If so, can we be brave enough to do it more efficiently?  Can we shed some of these trappings for efficiency’s sake and preserve what is most needed?

The past few months, I keep thinking about this question, about whether I could take all that money I spend on building things that I will tear down in a few weeks, and instead create something in a space that already exists. I wonder if I need to budget for all that stuff. I wonder if anyone would even miss it if the work was good enough. It seems so much more efficient. What if I could create a theatrical experience in which the audience interacted directly with the performance? What if I didn’t even need “actors?” What if I could put a “play” into a box and hand it to someone? Is that possible?

I don’t know.

But I feel like I need to ask the question. I feel like I need to find out.