Unless it’s shot by a master over a series of performances, live theater typically dies on film. Staging and performance get flattened out, sapped of their vital intimacy, and the arts of moviemaking usually don’t fare much better, especially when put to use recording the event in one go, as it happens: What is a film or documentary that has no mastery of time? And what is theater without its of-this-moment impermanence?
Such disappointment makes the Anthology Archives’ “Downtown New York Theater: Behind the Scenes” series all the more welcome. Here, epochal theater is honored not via the diminishments of filmed stagings but by the application of true film techniques. The Anthology’s selections edge up against great productions but never purport to archive them. Instead, they offer a sense of the craft and care behind them, the giddiness and boredom of life backstage, the labor of maintaining inspiration. Early in Shaun Irons’s Standing By: Gatz Backstage, we see John Collins, the director of the Elevator Repair Service’s eight-hour, full-text treatment of The Great Gatsby, offer a minor performance note to Scott Shepherd, who plays Nick Carraway — and who declaims the bulk of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel from the stage. Collins asks Shepherd to eliminate one small pause between two lines of narration. The surprise is that Collins seems a bit sheepish, offering an explanation for the change and a bit of an apology — this is the fifth week of the show’s London run, after all.
The sense in this scene, and in the rest of Standing By, is that a show is never truly locked, even this deep into its life. We hear actors, during an intermission, asking why lines that reliably stirred laughs at the Public seem to do nothing for the Brits. An actress worries aloud that the couple “bad” moments she had in one patch of play aren’t offset by the good ones she pulled off the rest of the performance. We don’t ever see what those good or bad moments were — the perspective here is all backstage, with occasional from-the-wings glimpses of Gatz itself. These illustrate the theme of actorly transformation: Irons will show us performers waiting for a cue, changing their clothes, eyeballing Wimbledon on a silent TV, sometimes gossiping in whispers or psyching each other up with goofy boogying just beyond the audience’s view. They seem in between selves, not the people we saw show up at the theater, and not the ones they will presently embody, either. Then they step onstage and seem whole again.
This is a rich and incisive film. The vantage point is that of a stagehand working through just another (extraordinary) night, a little sleepy, sometimes a touch bored, but always attentive to the people and performance itself. The power of Gatz bleeds into the wings. The cast is bouncy during the earliest scenes of Jazz Age debauchery, and they seem stubbed-out and somber when that Age crashes down around Nick, Daisy, and Gatsby — as moved as the audience might be, even five weeks in.
One curiosity: The surprising heat of a backstage spat between two performers, whom viewers might presume are lovers. (They’re not: It’s Lucy Taylor and Gary Wilmes, improvising a dustup between Daisy and Gatsby.) Shepherd isn’t part of this mystery fight, which might be fortunate considering the actor’s infamous 2012 slap of Marin Ireland, a co-star whom he was dating. Shepherd turns up in another Anthology doc about an Atlantic-straddling production: On Tour, a 25-minute piece about the ’04 Swiss run of To You, the Birdie, the Wooster Group’s Racine adaptation. (It’s the one with all the badminton.) Juliet Lashinsky-Revene and Jack Dafoe’s film is a more conventional look at the choices and hardships involved in a daring, difficult production: Kate Valk, who plays Phaedra, is glittering and grand as she describes all the thoughts and surprises that Birdie director Elizabeth LeCompte has been broadcasting into her earpiece during rehearsals: Monica Vitti from an Antonioni film? This too-brief examination of the orchestration of careful chaos is invigorating. Other scraps of Wooster history in the series are more evocative than instructional. LeCompte’s seventeen-minute Today I Must Sincerely Congratulate You (1991) is a lovely non-narrative document of backstage life, featuring movement rehearsal, checkers-playing, melodica-tootling, fussing over hair and makeup, and the cleaning and painting of a fish. There’s movie stars–to-be, too, touchingly young and dedicated to their craft. And Ken Kobland’s too-brief End Credits offers seven minutes of what a full filmed production usually can’t: a great performer’s presence. Here’s Ron Vawter, in his dressing room, during the ’93 run of Roy Cohn/Jack Smith, filmed just months before he died. It’s a scrap, and it’s a treasure.