Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Musings: Theater and the Observant Outsider: the importance of feedback in the production process
One of the more memorable moments from my college years has to be the day I happened upon Mel Brooks in the lobby of the then-brand new Hyatt Regency in San Francisco’s Embarcadero District, filming a sequence from “High Anxiety.” He was starring in it, of course, as he often was in his movie-making days, but after each shot he would dash over to a video screen to watch what had just gone on.
Had he done what he wanted to do? Was everyone in the right place? Was it as funny as he had hoped? Nope. Discussion with the actors. Discussion with the cameraman (the video camera shadowing what the film camera was doing). Back for another take of the same scene, with a few adjustments both to himself and the others involved, to make it better.
On and on it went, until finally he called it a wrap and they began packing up to move to a new location.
This is the elemental advantage of film, for a man like Brooks. He can be in his creation and direct his creation and have eyes in both places, as the camera becomes his surrogate. Behind the scenes, he will take the rushes from his filming and fiddle with them, pass them by producers and editors who will offer advice and expertise, and the end result will be something that is very much his, but also well vetted.
The same is not possible on the stage, really. The very immediacy which makes stage performance so emotionally satisfying means that a director cannot be in two places at the same time. If you are on stage performing with others, you cannot watch yourself in the moment. If you are off stage, in director mode, you are not allowing those you perform with to do what they need to do in relation to your character.
This is, if anything, more intense when one is performing solo, as the entire piece is just the performer, obviously unable to stand out front or in the wings to watch him or herself. Even the great solo performances – Hal Holbrook as Mark Twain, Eileen Atkins as Virginia Woolf, or Robert Morse as Truman Capote, for example – most definitely had someone else direct. Having more eyes involved with the creation of the final product allows the actor to practice his or her craft with that vital second opinion – a different eye – to avoid the traps of ego or of simply being too close to the material.
Interestingly the same can often be said of the relationship between writing and directing. Particularly in smaller theaters, it is not uncommon to see a director who is working with his or her own material. In theory this can be a good thing, but the concept often has fatal flaws.
(I cannot help but remember the professor in a class on readers theater who made us all buy his poetry chapbook “because when you read those poems I can tell you exactly what the author meant”. This created issues because many of those poems became subjects of ridicule among us, meaning we simply wouldn’t want to read them aloud – as we actually understood them – to the man who was giving us a grade. We were not allowed to edit, and trust me, they needed work even this college junior could see.)
So let’s face it: in reality (and I do not discount this in myself) any author has a strong tendency to fall in love with the work he or she has written to the point where it is tough to see the flies in the ointment. Editing is tough without feedback. Feedback rarely comes most efficiently from oneself, particularly in the admittedly ego-driven world of performance. The American greats from Arthur Miller on down did not direct their own iconic dramas. Neither did the likes of Neil Simon, whose comedic view of the mid-20th century is startlingly timeless.
Sometimes this is an obvious choice, as many writers are more cerebral than physical in their view of what their play is trying to say. In other words, a person proficient with words isn’t necessarily proficient with the physical interplay of bodies in a stage space. The added plus of an outside director, beyond a more visual artistic understanding, can be the work of an editor. What looks good on paper doesn’t always translate to what captures an audience from the stage, and the director is there to illuminate that.
For over 50 years there was a small amateur theater company in Altadena, California which devoted itself to producing untried plays. Theatre Americana would advertise in college newspapers and literary journals, and would sort through the hundreds of scripts they received annually to find four plays which would each be “put on its feet” every year. Their structure underscored this need for a writer to be open to outside input.
Their contract with the authors insisted they be allowed to edit the work, and they often did. Those who would not agree were told that TA was not interested in their work. Even with edits it was often obvious that playwrights tend to write more than the stage can stand. (As my mother would have said, perhaps George Bernard Shaw could get away with plays which were really more “costumed panel discussions” but nobody else can.) But then that was what TA’s mission was all about. They always invited the authors to come and take a look at the results, and thus to take away some sense of where the play needed to be worked on next.
Sadly, in these days when getting people into a theater is tougher than ever, and getting them into a community theater is even harder, the last members of Theatre Americana found it difficult to pass their legacy on to a new generation. Just as this was dawning on them, the County saw fit to remove them from the building they had, in the first part of the 20th century, been instrumental in getting built in a local county park. Finally, the enterprise shut down, though still stating a wan hope of revival. I admit I miss their energy. It was an education to see their productions, not only for the playwrights, but for this then-much-younger theatrical critic.
All of which to say that I have seen several productions over the past year where the critical objective eye was missing in some way. The person who wrote was directing and pretty much running the show. The person directing was also the star. In each case, the loss of an independent critical eye meant that some amount of potential went unrealized. I cannot claim this is always, universally true. Still, that desire to save money or make something totally one’s personal vision, or whatever causes such foreshortening of the elemental staffing of a theatrical production should be approached with deep caution. In the theater, perhaps more than most other art forms, independent observation is key.