Theater archives

A Case for the Return of Some Vanishing Stage Customs


It’s well past midnight. The old year has finally left the building. The partyers are home sleeping off their midnight champagne, and the worriers, like me, are sitting up late, worrying about the state of the world or, in my case, the state of the theater. Worrying is part of a critic’s job description.

Naturally, I’m fretting over the state of the larger world, too. It seems to become a crazier and more frightening place every year. The weather’s crazy, the economy’s crazy, corporate crookedness and political intransigence seem to be spreading like weeds across the globe. We’ve made the world an awful mess, and our whole civilization has started to seem like a worn-out machine that’s about to break down. I don’t need to list the big crises for you. If you’re awake at this hour, you’re worrying about them, too.

Unable to solve these big problems myself, I find my concern shifting to odd little things, closer to home. Why is it, for instance, that cheating has been outlawed on Broadway? I’m not talking about fiscal chicanery—the theater’s always got plenty of that, and poor Ben Sprecher’s probably awake at this hour, too, fretting over the Rebecca disaster. No, I mean what’s known in actor-parlance as “cheating out”: Positioning yourself, when your scene partner is upstage of you, so that you can acknowledge him or her while still letting the audience see your face. I spent a lot of last year, it seems to me, staring at actors’ backs for long stretches, including those of Katie Holmes in Dead Accounts and Patti LuPone in the opening segment of The Anarchist. In both cases, not seeing the performer’s face also hindered the audibility of her lines; ends of sentences tended to disappear up into the flies instead of being sent out to the house.

Directors these days discourage cheating. It violates reality, and the audience, increasingly bred on movies and TV, apparently desires the same literal-minded realism from a medium that can never, by its nature, be wholly literal. I miss cheating because it establishes a link between actor and audience. It’s an acknowledgement of the fact we all know: that when we go to the theater, we’re not in somebody’s kitchen or office or living room. We’re in a theater watching a play, and its cast is in the same room with us, breathing the same air, performing for our benefit.

Another of these gradually vanishing customs is counter-crossing. When an actor makes a strong move to the right, somebody else onstage moves slightly to the left; the spectator’s eye gets a sense of pictorial balance. It’s a compositional tactic directors used to be taught to use—the challenge is to use it subtly and inventively. It doesn’t exist in film or television, where the camera does most of the moving, and the editor chooses which actor to focus on. The stage demands an overall image all the time. Unlike the sequence of shots in a movie, it’s a representation of life that’s being shaped right there, before our eyes and with our connivance.

Our seeming reluctance to relish that, in the face of the electronic flood that now dominates so much of the world’s consciousness, has led to yet another oddity: a new literalism, even Off-Broadway, in scene design. Instead of designers striving to sum up a play in a bold gesture that acknowledges the theatrical space, real rooms roll on and off the stage, on wagons or turntables; it’s the era of David Belasco’s productions, reborn with Wi-Fi. The alternative, regrettably often, is the sort of pointless multimedia blitz that seems to come on a direct feed from MTV. Interestingly, both kinds of complicated settings seem increasingly difficult to coordinate. I’ve been at four press performances in the past year where set changes broke down; the most recent, at Golden Boy, came just in time to dampen the dramatic climax.

Such literalism isn’t the theater’s only unhappy hand-me-down from the electronic media. Producers now cast plays, even in the smallest venues, with actors chosen for their name recognition instead of their ability, or their rightness for the role. We’re blessed with more first-rate actors than we’ve had in decades—even some of the media migrants have turned out to be gifted stage performers. Rarely, though, do they get the best chances to display their gifts, since producers now choose plays, too, on the basis of their titles’ familiarity, not their stature, their relevance, or the excitement they supply.

And the audience, especially in our big Broadway spaces, seems content just to have a familiar name in a familiar title. If the experience feels rather flat and abstract, they’re OK because so many of them are too busy texting, tweeting, blogging, answering their cell phones, or posting on Facebook to give the play much attention. Multitasking is concentration’s worst enemy.

And that, you see, is where my big and little worries connect. When the actors forge no bond with the public, when directors and designers plod down predictable paths instead of challenging the spectator’s imagination, and when the audience is too busy playing with its electronic toys to give themselves over to a three-dimensional experience taking place in the same room—how can the event mean anything at all?

The Anarchist fell victim to this triple whammy. Emotionally cut off from the performers by the author’s flat direction, the easily distracted audience made the snap judgment that this densely written, even convoluted script was flat and simplistic; some probably mistook it for one of Mamet’s annoying political blogorations. But Mamet’s a playwright, not a political thinker. His play had the ill luck to arrive while the world was living on that information-laden cloud where facile statements regularly trump more complex meanings, not just temporarily, but for as long as their Web links last.

The Internet has brought incredible benefits, making data universally accessible and shaping giant communities. But it’s also diminished our lives, by disconnecting us from the direct experience of other human beings. Along with the free expression of opinion that opens doors and stimulates serious discussion, it has nurtured the kind of psycho-individualism that lives only to post its own anger, oblivious to what anyone else might feel or say. That anger, utterly locked in itself yet out on the cloud for all to see, is the force that massacres. Theater, which by its very existence shows us that we all share a common humanity, is a key part of the great civilizing counterforce.

A lot of theater people lately have been struggling to invent ways for live performance to assert itself more strongly against the electronic onslaught: “interactive” works that you meander through, like art installations, only confrontational; one-on-one experiments in intimacy; cabaret-like events that resemble drinking parties with impromptu entertainment. There’s no harm in these, old ideas all. Ultimately, they may alter the theater’s conventions. But I doubt that they’ll change its essence. The theater, that tiny piece of spiritual turf so dwarfed by global media transmission, is already communal, already intimate, already (if both sides play their parts) interactive. I don’t doubt that it will continue—if humanity, with all its current craziness, doesn’t wipe itself out. Meantime, I sit here, clocking the new year in, waiting for signs of sanity. And worrying.