Monday, June 11, 2012
The Telling of Stories: A Discussion on Live Theatre
I am very sad to have missed last night's broadcast of the 66th annual Tony Awards. The ship which I am working on did not televise it, and though waking up this morning with a view of the gorgeous French Riviera (Villefranche, to be exact) was quite a nice compensation, I very much miss the tradition of gathering at a friend's house to watch and support the Broadway community. It is important to begin by saying that I have the utmost respect and admiration for the artists who work on Broadway, and for the work that they create. When I enter an audition room and recognise dancers whom I have seen in Broadway shows, I feel incredibly honoured just to be dancing beside them at the same audition call. To be sure, it was on Broadway that I saw Lincoln Center's revival of CAROUSEL, which would plant a seed that would later grow into an idea that would change my path forever. At the time, I was still a little girl with fierce ambitions to be a principle ballerina with New York City Ballet. I would happily sit through many versions of Tchaikovsky's "Swan Lake" to watch Odette flutter to her death, or see the title couple's magnificent pas de deux during the balcony scene in Sir Kenneth Macmillan's version of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet." When my mom told me that I would have to sit through a show where the pointe shoes would be replaced by a bunch of acting, I was sure that it would be a couple of hours of complete boredom. In fact, CAROUSEL moved me to tears. This was possibly the first time when I was made aware that the telling of story though song, dance, and book could be so affecting. Broadway is where stories are told as such in the highest calibre, which is why I currently live in NY; to grab the chance at joining the ranks of all the amazing artists who make Broadway the center of the theatrical universe.
In light of the (interesting) public discussions about this year's Tony Awards featuring a performance broadcast from a cruise ship, I feel a need to address a few issues. To be clear, as supportive as I am of the cruise industry for creating employment opportunities for artists like myself, I do not think that the Tonys, which recognises excellence on Broadway, should be showing clips from any show that has not been part of the current Broadway season. However, this view, which many Broadway artists very fairly share, has been accompanied with the more unfair, somewhat elitist view from many of the same that the calibre of live theatre which is found on Broadway cannot been found anywhere else. This is the argument that I beg to differ. As remarkable as Broadway is, it is not a flawless entity that can do no wrong. I have seen more than a few Broadway shows which I have walked out of wonderfing how on earth the creative team sat there during dress and tech runs and deemed it good enough by any standard, let alone the Broadway one.
People go to the theatre for different reasons. Some people go to see dancers kicking their legs to their face. Some people go to hear the golden voices of fantastic singers. I go to be told a story. I want to walk out of the theatre aching for a discussion, because the story that I have just watched unfold before my eyes has been intensely thought-provoking. In my opinion, theatre should always fuel a discussion. Isn't that why we create? To explore the world in which we are living by holding up that famous proverbial mirror? Yes, there is something to be said for a good old fashioned book musical with fabulous production numbers accompanied by a fun, fluffy script. However, I am always most drawn to theatre that tells me a story uniquely enough to be pushing boundaries. I want to be made to think, I want to be made to ask questions, and I want to perhaps have my mind changed about topical ideas. While Broadway has always told, and continues to tell many great stories in ways that are ground-breaking, it is certainly not the only platform on which such live theatre can be seen.
Now, please bear with me as I refer to three pieces of theatre which I have seen, but which I cannot remember clearly. I may not be able to speak of them in specific detail due to my lack of memory on the specifics, but I can definitely describe how I felt during and after these shows, which I remember clearly.
Arguably, my number one theatrical experience was in Orlando, when I went to see Cirque du Soleil's LA NOUBA. Anyone lucky enough to catch a non-touring Cirque show will know that these theatrical spectacles are in a league of their own, not just as a circus, but as a live theatre event. I say non-touring, because, while both fantastic, there is a substantial difference in the Cirque shows which tour, and the shows which play in a space that is custom-built for the productions. I was in my first year of college when I saw LA NOUBA. I remember being awe-struck from the second I entered the space, which created a mystical, fantastical world even before the show began. This feeling stayed with me long after I left that space; to this day, I still reference the production when discussing great theatre. The storytelling of LA NOUBA is unparalleled. Why? Because the obvious love that went into that production from all departments created a world so specific and detailed, that I would venture to say that it was flawless. From the perfect type of eyebrow painted onto each performer to the perfect piece of rhinestone sewn onto each costume, each bit of detail had so obviously been discussed and mulled over and discussed some more before the creative team decided that it was the right choice for their story. Then, you have the actual performances. My goodness, who has watched a flying trapeze act and not felt an array of emotion? From fear to awe to elation? In the Cirque, the performers (the best in their field) of the acts are not presented to us as mere circus artists. They are characters within the story, or physical representations of the theme. The flying trapeze artists might represent wind while the contortionist might be playing the Goddess of Air. The clowns who enter between each act to give us a break from the spectacle by rooting us back into the honesty of the story actually come on now and then to tumble with the circus artists! They are acrobats as well as comedians as well as brilliant dramatic actors! My oh my. Thus, I left the theatre having been taken on a remarkable journey. I didn't understand the foreign song lyrics, nor was there text to help tell us the story. But, I understood, and left with jaw agape by the perfect union of physical and visual brilliance.
As a teenager, I spent a couple of years in high school at a boarding school in Surrey, England. Our theatre department took us to see The Globe's all-male production of Shakespeare's ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA, starring the incomparible Mark Rylance as our tragic heroine. Most people reading this will be well acquainted with The Globe. Many audience members stand, as was the practice in Shakespeare's day, and the actors may refer to the audience during their asides. If an audience member is feeling particularly rowdy, he or she may just holler back, and it wouldn't be considered ill-mannered. The onstage action, from lack of scenery, and live musicians during scene changes, are kept as close to the tradition of Shakespeare's day as possible. I have not had the pleasure of seeing Mark Rylance onstage since his performance as Cleopatra, nor did I know at the time what a world renowned actor he was. I remember watching his dying soliloquy and having to remind myself that this was actually a man onstage. I have seen all-male casts of Shakespeare's plays where the men playing the females purposefully heighten the female qualities, both vocally and in their physical mannerisms. It is a storytelling device that I have found works for comedy. For example, having seen a touring production in England of an all-male cast of TAMING OF THE SHREW, I laughed out loud througout at the lead actor's hysterically histrionic performance of Katherine. The production of ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA was quite muted, as far as the flamboyant tendencies went. There were no Pantomime "Dames" onstage. All the men who played female characters played them with absolute truth, with perhaps a singular feminine wave of the hand or lift of the eyebrow for a subtle comic effect. In an age of hydraulics and high production values, I believe it to be a feat to keep an audience's rapt attention with only the simplest costumes and set pieces to accompany the scenework. ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA did just that. Not being a Shakespeare scholar, I didn't understand fifty percent of the actual text. The quality of the acting alone told the story. Nothing else was needed, and as Rylance, with his grief-stricken painted face, played Cleopatra's death, I was aware that I had just witnessed a three hour masterclass in acting and storytelling through text. I am reminded of an acting teacher's constant words: "Go back to the text." Too often in the theatre, the text is sacrificed to show off other flashy devices. The text should be our bible; the story must start and end with the text. I will never forget ANTONY AND CLEOPATRA for being such an honest example of this.
Lastly, I will note a production of Sarah Ruhl's PASSION PLAY, which I saw in Brooklyn. I cannot, for the life of me, remember the name of the theatre, isn't that awful? I went to see the play to support an old camp friend. The story takes place in three acts, in three different time periods, in three different locations. During each time period, a community is putting on a production of PASSION PLAY (a dramatic presentation of the passion of Jesus Christ) for Christmas, so at times, the audience will witness a play within a play within a play. Every actor plays the same role in each time period. For example, it is always the same actor playing each character who is rehearsing to play Jesus in the different time periods. Among the many issues PASSION PLAY discusses, there is the one of how taking on a role like Jesus can affect your own reality and personage. Will it change you? Will you begin to believe yourself to have the qualities that Jesus had? Will people perceive you differently? I discussed the play for days afterwards with the friend whom I had seen it with. Isn't this the best type of theatre? The kind that keeps you asking questions? The space was a non-conventional one; I believe that it used to be a church. It was one big room, with no proscenium arch or raised stage. There were huge (when I say huge, I mean GIGANTIC) boxes that were moved around the space by the actors to signify scene changes, and on which playing levels were made. It remains one of the most innovative pieces of theatre that I have ever seen. It moved from scene to scene seamlessly, and we were immersed in these worlds as if watching an Imax 3D movie. The action was in and around us, even, at times, above us. The acting was grounded in authenticism, and I remember thinking, and still do, that if I am ever lucky enough to be cast in such a production, I would be incredibly honoured.
You may have noticed that I have not discussed any musical theatre. The honest, somewhat sad truth is that, more recently, commercial musical theatre productions are leaving me a little cold. Recent productions that spring to my mind as bold an innovative: Roundabout Theatre's multi-racial casting Broadway revival of 110 IN THE SHADE; The Chocolate Factory's stunning London revivals of SUNDAY IN THE PARK WITH GEORGE and LA CAGE AUX FOLLES; Donmar Warehouse's 2003 production of PACIFIC OVERTURES (I'd like to believe that the Donmar's 2007 production of the original London cast of PARADE which I was proudly in is also in that league); Broadway's JERSEY BOYS. Moments of musical theatre that I will never forget: Audra McDonald breaking my heart in her rendition of "Old Maid" in the aforementioned 110 IN THE SHADE; Brian Stokes Mitchell finishing a flawless rendition of "The Impossible Dream" to a mid-show standing ovation in the Broadway revival of MAN OF LA MANCHA; Robert Cuccioli's continued transformations between Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde when the two characters confront each other in the original Broadway production of JEKYLL AND HYDE; walking out of the original Broadway production of DIRTY ROTTEN SCOUNDRELS right at the beginning of its run and having a very strong physical sensation that told me that Norbert Leo Butz would win the Tony that year for best actor in a musical (he did).
Thus, here we are, back to the Tony Awards, and back to Broadway. I love musical theatre, and I love Broadway. The Tony Awards are specific to Broadway, but live theatre is not. Just as I will never underestimate the brilliance of Broadway, nor will I forget the unparalleled theatrical experiences that I have had in places a far cry from Broadway. It is so important that, even if we are disappointed in the Tony Award producers for featuring non-Broadway performances, we do not begin to snub our noses at live theatre elsewhere. Anyone who truly thinks that if it is not on Broadway, then it is not worth it, is severely under-cultured, or severely under-travelled. (Or both.) As far as I am concerned, if a production is keeping me and/or my friends in employment and paying us so that we can eat and pay our rent while we get to do what we are most passionate about, and do it for an audience that may not necessarily have the funds or means to get to Broadway, then it is most definitely worth it.