Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Theatricality

When Brad Fraser was in town guest teaching the first Playwrights’ Boot Camp class, we discussed the notion of theatricality…and I’ve been thinking about it ever since. What makes theatre different than other art forms? What makes something distinctly theatrical?

These are tough questions especially now since so much of what we do is influenced either directly or indirectly by other art forms, other mediums, and technology.

For me, it has to do with connection and imagination.

In the theatre, we have pleasure of connecting to hundreds and even thousands of people.  They’re right there, in front of us; there is no screen, radio, or page between us.  In this intimacy, we get to move people: make them laugh, cry, break their hearts, dance in their seat, walk out, talk, think, excite them, transport them, and transform them…and we have the potential to do it in an infinite number of ways.

So I’ve asked some people what the most “theatrical” play they’ve ever seen was and here’s what they said and why:

From Kevin McKendrick, Director
The most theatrical play I ever saw was, At The Black Pig's Dyke by the Druid Theate od Galway Ireland.

The stage space was empty to begin, and the actors took on many various characters with subtle shifts in demeanor, posture and attitude. It was full of music and musicianship as well. I think it work so well because it worked upon my imagination. I was responsible for filling in so much of the detail, spurred on by the choices made by the director, designers and actors. And it was live! There is nothing more theatrical than that one aspect.

David van Belle, Playwright/Performer/Co-Artistic Director of Ghost River Theatre
I saw Fuerzabruta in New York a few years back, an amazing performance created by Diqui James from Buenos Aires, Argentina.  They unabashedly embraced spectacle--narrative was for the most part limited to a series of astonishments.  What they did best was focus on things that could only be done in the theatre--a membrane the full size of the theatre slowly lowered to just above the audience's heads, with performers sloshing around in a rolling pool of water on top of it, looking down at us through the layer of water; a massive treadmill with a running man on it who passes through various environments that roll past him on the treadmill; things like that.  

An interactive, immersive experience.  That's a good example of theatricality in action.  I saw the show just around the time that Eric Rose and I started thinking about taking over at Ghost River--I know the show inspired some of our ideas for the theatricality in Reverie.  

Graham Percy, Playwright/Actor
The most theatrical play I have ever seen was the magnificent Dragon Trilogy by Robert Lepage, which is still one of the highlights of my theatre going life.  The six hours disappeared like a dream on the back of a story that leapt through time and space with breathtaking innovation.  

Lepage is a master of transformation - of the space, of the body, and ultimately of the mind and of the heart - and for me theatricality is rooted in these transformations.  Arising from a playful exchange between the imagination of the spectator and the craft of the artist, they uproot perception and set the event in motion.  Whether it be through a simple gesture or the most elaborate stage machinery the goal remains the same, to make the invisible visible.


Tracy Carroll, Director / Dramaturg / APN Edmonton Liaison
It’s a play that I saw with an incredibly simple design that stands out in my mind as the most theatrical piece that I’ve seen. The play is called The Stones and was created, written, directed and performed by two actors from a company called Zeal Theatre in Australia.

The play is geared for teens and was performed at the Northern Alberta Children’s Festival in St. Albert several years ago. It’s about 2 young boys who are charged with manslaughter after throwing rocks off of a highway overpass and killing a driver below. The actors play the boys as well as the detectives that are questioning them about the incident on the overpass, and the set is simply two sawhorses and a ladder. The actors inventively used these set pieces to create each location in the play; smoothly transitioning from the overpass to the police station to a scene where the boys are trying to escape and one is climbing up the ladder as the other actor is holding it up. 

This production was one of the most engaging, intelligent, creative, and yes, theatrical experiences I have ever attended. Despite the fact that the play was presented in a senior centre with noise and lighting limitations, the strength of the writing shined through and the audience of teens completely bought into the story and characters…and so did I.

The Stones is a play that I’ve spoken about many times with colleagues and friends as an example of simply, great theatre. Interestingly, I don’t think that the clever staging that the actors created would have been so engaging if the script wasn’t as strong as it was. A good production, I believe, is only as strong as the script. In this case, the writing, direction, acting and design of The Stones, all came together to make this play a memorable theatrical experience for me.

I think it is important to take stock of the engaging and transformative plays we see, they'll help us remember why we keep going back, and why we keep creating.  

Thank you to David, Tracy, Kevin, and Graham...these are wonderful examples!

What is the most theatrical play you've ever seen?

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