Reviewing Theatre For Over 40 Years
Part 2: The Play’s the Thing: What Audiences Will Believe
As I continued to think about my theme: things which make films different from theatrical productions, I realized I had left out what I personally consider the most egregious “did you not understand the point of a single set?” moment I have run into in film. I have added it as an addendum to Part 1, so feel free to wander back and check it out.
Perhaps the most fascinating thing about stage productions is their ability to convince audiences they are seeing things which aren’t there. This is not new. Shakespeare had to deal with it all the time, as the concept of a set as we now know it was unavailable to him. When people in the modern era cut the Bard’s plays it is often to get rid of what my mother (who taught and wrote about theater), often referred to as the “here we are in the forest of Arden” speeches, because in his day you had to explain the setting, as it wasn’t really there. (One of the most famous begins Henry V, wherein the chorus enjoins the audience to, among other things, “think, when we speak of horses, that you see them…”)
In time, sets became the norm, and in the 18th Century theater stages became elaborate pieces of machinery so that gods could descend from the heavens and things could rise from the depths. Literal was in, image-wise, to the point where, in the early 1910s, my grandmother saw a stage production of Ben Hur which actually had horses running on treadmills for the chariot race.
The shift back came when theater, for the first time, had to compete with film. In the same way that photography allowed the rise of the impressionist and then expressionist, etc., art world (you didn’t need to paint a tree that looked like a tree anymore, you could take a picture of it instead), the rise of film and television, once seen as a death knell of theater, forced it in many cases to return to what it had been in the beginning. It became, by the mid-20th Century, the last great bastion of suspension of disbelief. Today, theater is in many cases the imagination’s great collective gift.
The following is not even vaguely a retrospective of innovative productions, but snapshots on a few which captured my attention simply because the lack of set, or the development of a set-within-a-set, and an audience’s willingness to go along with and “see” what wasn’t there proved essential in the play’s success.
Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1938 play Our Town is an especially good illustration of this. In the innovative period of New Deal idealism, this encapsulated portrait of a small New England town was most notable for its study of human nature, and for its staging. The narrator or chorus was the stage manager of the theater, and the “fourth wall” separating the action onstage from the audience was nonexistent – a style Wilder embraced. The set, such as it was, consisted of a few chairs, a couple of tables, and two ladders. Leaning at the top of the ladders, teenaged love interests Emily and George talked out the bedroom windows of their neighboring houses. A couple of chairs created a front porch to sit on and snap beans together. Formal rows of chairs held the occupants of the graveyard.
None of those places existed except in the narrator’s explanation and the minds of the audience, but that audience saw them nonetheless. Through all the revivals on and off Broadway, even college productions, minimalism and that removal of the 4th wall has remained elemental. This stark format made it ripe for radio broadcasts, and there were several in the days before television took off. A television version of the play aired live in 1955, with major Hollywood stars, but kept to the simplicity of the original staging, as had the only theatrical film in 1940 (though it changed the ending at the studio’s insistence). Indeed, the one time I saw the play with actual sets, the power diminished almost exponentially.
Wilder did not invent the modern version of this concept, of course, nor was he the only innovator of his time. Indeed, Bertolt Brecht among others was doing similar things in Germany between the wars, and with the escape from Nazism many European avant garde artistic and theatrical innovations cross-pollinated with their American counterparts.
Fast-forward to the 1960s. As live theater worked to reclaim its space in American culture from television, sets, in general, tended to become less literal. Of course, one possible reason might be that having no set was cheaper. The ultimate example of this would be the 1960 debut, way, way off Broadway, of the musical The Fantasticks. In its tiny space it also made use of a ladder or two, and a mime who made and removed an invisible wall in the middle of the action. The musical, with its simple comparison of romanticized vs trouble-filled life was infectious, and still holds the record for consecutive performances in the US, at 17,162. This without really having a set at all. (And yes, I saw a production which included an elaborate set and an expanded score from the two-piano original. It fell flat as a pancake.)
On the big Broadway stage, however, it was and is not the cost of a set, but the ability to move quickly from concept to concept, place to place, or even in and out of an author’s head, without having to move much of anything. A stellar moment in this concept has to be the musical “Man of La Mancha,” which though following some rules of a standard American musical, broke its own ground.
When it came to setting, the story-within-a-story played out not with the shifting sets of Brigadoon or the elaborately intertwined noir vs modern Hollywood set pieces of the later City of Angels, but on a single stage. The shift was in the audience’s mind, for the entire play was set in a prison filled with people awaiting trial by the Spanish Inquisition. Yet, though that gave the tone its immediacy, it was the story spun by prisoner Miguel de Cervantes which took over the space. Within that one set, using bits of dark wood and a few costumes and props, the tale of Don Quixote de La Mancha came to life. As if to point out what was happening, every once in a while the workings of the prison come back to break up the fantasy, but it proved easy to pull everyone, including the audience, back into the fantasy world.
Recently, three differing productions have stood out to me, as they pointed to the use of this hugely simplistic style of set (although that is really usually the result of very not-so-simple, subtle design). Berkeley Rep’s pared down “Into the Woods”, placed all the performers, many of whom doubled as musicians, in chairs lined the edges of the stage, coming into the piece as required. There have been enough concert versions of Sondheim musicals, so this is not surprising, but it differs greatly from the elaborate costuming and visuals of the original, and it was – if anything – more powerful as a result.
Paula Vogel’s “Indecent,” fresh from Broadway, lined up its cast under a screen where projections in Yiddish and English (Brecht would be proud) helped one through the true story of a famed Yiddish playwright whose one popular work, which had made him famous in Europe, was destroyed by the hesitant culture of New York theater in the 30s. With virtually no set, the lights and the actors created theater stages, intimate homes, and rich communal spaces, and once again the audience went right along. The projections even allowed the performers to quote the play in the original Yiddish, by creating supertitles evocative of many modern opera productions, and – again – the audience just moved right along with it all.
Finally, the continuing (once the COVID-19 virus has run its course) tour of the brilliant “Come From Away” uses one simple set, chairs and tables to create everything from a plane to a bus to a school hallway to… anywhere else needed, while the small acting company, simply by donning a hat or a jacket, became the many, many people who lived in or arrived in Gander, Newfoundland on 9/11. It lost out in the Tony Awards to the fine, but highly set-and-projection-driven Dear Evan Hanson. Still, it is by far the show most likely to stand the test of time, in part because it is powered by the sparking of audience imagination.
And that is what the theater can do: plug the audience’s imagination into the workings onstage, creating something larger than any bit of wood and canvas could possibly achieve. “We are such things as dreams are made of” says one of Shakespeare’s characters, speaking not only to the play it is from but to the whole idea of theatrical performance.
Of course, as with my concerns from the first part of this musing, when you take something from the stage and, rather than filming a stage performance, turn it into the usually more literal format of classic movie-making, adjustments must be made. Doing it right can create a classic. Doing it wrong, or doing it with the wrong stage piece – one so dependent on the audience’s imagination that trying to fill in those blanks weakens the whole – can ruin the thing, even perhaps to the point of making folks not want to see the original stage version anymore.
However, that is for the next segment of this. Stay tuned for Part 3.