Thursday, August 27, 2009

Pragmatic Theater: Realism and The Play As A Construct II

So, I originally got interested in the idea of the play as a construct reading Brecht, but that's what it was to me--an idea. Stephen Colbert made me understand what it meant for comedy (which I analyzed academically here, if you don't mind mixing academia and comedy), and I came across it extremely effectively in an admittedly really lousy student production of The Crooked Cross, a play which I extremely dislike, but had one choice that worked really well: namely, the girl who is murdered at the end of the play stays dead, lying there face down as the curtain call happens. And everyone files out, leaving the poor actress lying there face down.

Suddenly, it becomes about more than the play. The audience is literally laughing about the actress being left behind. It also feels like a hokey choice--it doesn't strike me as being inspired, or anything. But there's an awkwardness as people consider, "Do we leave yet? If we stay, will she stay face down?"

At any rate, I walked out feeling as though it was a silly choice rather like the rest of the really bad, really silly choices in that piece. But it stayed with me. There was something emotionally jarring about her staying dead--even though I knew it was a hokey choice. It had blurred the end of the play for me, and in some strange subconscious part of my mind I wasn't allowed to end the play.

For me, there became two tools used in opposition: one is the use of the play as a construct, and the other as being blurring the lines between reality and the play.

On the one hand (as my teacher Laura Levine would tell me to start this essay), you cannot ignore the fact that you are putting on a show, because people are sitting in a theater facing actors, having just paid money for the privilege. In a way, any lack of acknowledgment of that is an insult and a failure.

On the other hand, the audience's ability to compartmentalize theater as something separate from real life allows them to dull its impact--to dull its realism (see previous post). If I had to point to the one chief advantage that theater has over film is that in film, there is very little way for the film (using current technology, I should probably qualify) to avoid that compartmentalization. The film is a physical artifact, and no matter how well constructed it is, it ends rather abruptly--it is playing, and then it is not. The end.

Theater, on the other hand, could be constructed in such a way that people are not quite sure where it starts or end. If you try to create theater that is absolutely invisible, that's one thing--much like "theater" in which nobody knows theater is happening. This is the sort of performance art that groups do outside of a theater, in "the real world" (i.e. in a place where naturalistic conventions are the norm), where nobody knows they're participating at all. That, perhaps, doesn't interest me so much.

But if you are in the place where non-naturalistic conventions are the norm; i.e. in a theater, where no matter how much "naturalism" we try to put in place, we still have plenty of things that get in the way of absolute 100% naturalism?

My approach to this has been to try and create a production wherein the play starts naturalistically in real life--the actors are themselves, they enter into the space along with the audience in some way. The audience knows that they are there for a production, but don't know how exactly it will begin or take place (this is why this method demands a black-box theater, rather than a proscenium). They sit, the actors appear to be preparing, and then something happens that starts to tell the story--transitioning in a way which is not so seamless as to be hidden to view, but in such a way that it seems to progress naturally and consciously from real life. Then the story continues, with the performer remaining the same performer who is present out of the performance, until the performance comes to some sort of an end--but not a clean end, an end that dribbles out into the real world.

In the tradition of Brecht, I'll do the self-serving thing and give an example from my own work (although not in the tradition of Brecht, I'll plug that it's available here for $10 / $2 download). The production Orchestration took place in a black-box theater, but it sort-of began a little beforehand, where the man orchestrating the production (It's important to me that the central protagonist of these pieces appear to orchestrate the entire evening, so that he is in control of all of the elements of the story he is trying to tell; this is the orchestrator) is mingling with the audience, greeting them as they enter.

As the audience files in, the orchestrator ushers the ensemble into the space, including a technical person (who was played by me, the writer-director) who would appear to run the entire show's technical aspects from on-stage, at the direction of the orchestrator.

At the direction of the orchestrator, the story begins--by this point, the audience is absolutely clear that the production has begun. The production tells its tale--at this point, it's mostly a classical production, with a few moments of self-awareness. As the story progresses, the ensemble characters become slowly more and more self-aware of the story, and finally the narrative collapses on the orchestrator, who has no more control over the narrative. Everything is in silence until this point; he breaks his own convention to try and bully through shouting the other characters into obeying him. He kills characters, they resurrect themselves. And now (spoiler alert! actually, I don't care about that sort of thing), he reaches the end of his rope--he can't make them obey his conception of the story: he kicks them out, he kicks out the technical person (me, the writer-director), and sulks.

Then he starts yelling at the audience to get out--they're just as much a part of his failure as anything else. And the doors open, and the characters (who are humming a funeral song from earlier in the production) stand in rows to guide them out. Framed in the doorway is myself, the writer-director, only now I really am actually just myself, and as the audience comes out, still (hopefully) reeling from the abrupt collapse of the play, I thank them for coming with a smile.

My hope is that the beginning and end are blurred in such a way that the performance becomes more real to them, more difficult to compartmentalize as just something that happened in a theater space--even though obviously this is all still just a planned artifact. This is the aesthetic you get in The Office--note the big deal people make about the fact that when they're not filming, the actors are pretending to do the office thing, and yet at the same time they film The Office in such a way that they both are aware and not aware that this is being filmed for someone else's benefit--as though they are aware of producing a construct, but not being aware that the construct they think they're making is the construct they are making. That's the appeal of reality shows: the participants think they're playing a certain role in the drama, but really they're probably playing a completely different role. They may think the competition is about their talent, and they may think that they are the hero in the story, but they are not.

That's what I feel about realism today, and how it relates to the play (or TV series or film) as a construct, and how you go about treating it as a construct. For Brecht, it was as simple as occasionally stepping outside of the construct once or twice (like Jim's sidelong looks at the camera in The Office), but if we leverage the fact of real, three-dimensional, unquestionable human beings in the space of theater, we can do more: we can force the construct we make into the real world.

(By the way, this aesthetic is the result of returning to a single hunch over and over again: I've always hated curtain calls more than anything, except when I'm participating in them, and I haven't known why... it's possible to read this as an analysis of why they ring so false for me).

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