Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Power of Spectacle

“Less is more.”
-- Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, Architect

My mom loves THE PHANTOM OF THE OPERA, but when she first saw it years ago and told me about it, the moment that lit up her face like a schoolgirl was that chandelier being pulled up from the stage floor and resurrecting itself, swinging above the audience, filled with light, while the orchestra swells.

I’m not the biggest fan of Andrew Lloyd Webber as it is, so all I could think was, it’s just a chandelier, what’s the big deal?

Then I saw the show on Broadway and was, quite literally, blown away by that moment.

It revealed to me a great power in the theatre, but a power that can be too wieldy, or can be abused, for lack of other qualities. The problem is when we get lured into thinking all we need is a bit of spectacle like that chandelier moment. We start to think that it’s not a real or “produced” show unless we have all these bright lights, or a full set, or a huge theater, or…well, you fill in the blanks.

The truth is, all you need is an actor and an audience to create theater. We need a truthful story played well.  If you don’t have clarity, truth, and a sense of a good story being told, all the chandeliers in the world won’t save you.

Last week, I saw two short plays in the Harold Pinter Festival, as produced by the Pittsburgh Irish & Classical Theater. (You might be asking, why is an Irish theater company doing Pinter? Considering Pinter was inspired by Beckett and then went on to inspire other playwrights such as McDonagh, it makes sense…). We saw the double bill of THE DUMB WAITER paired with BETRAYAL. The stage was a small thrust size space, fitting probably about 150 people or so. The lights were not great, certainly nothing you’d find on Broadway, or Off-Broadway. Sets were minimal. In fact, the design team handled the BETRAYAL locations by having all of them practically on stage the whole time, using a lot of the same pieces in different places, so that there was little lag time between scenes. We didn’t have to wait long for the next location to be in place. I loved that simplicity. It also helped the flow of the text. The production elements reminded me of a school production and yet, nothing in the show felt like college—it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time, especially since Pinter can be so tricky.

Without the clutter of an over-designed set, the audience was left with the power of the acting and the text. It is Pinter, after all. You cannot help but focus on the interplay of words, the subtlety of behavior, and the power games that you witness. Spectacle can be powerful, but catches the audience’s breathe for a fleeting moment, while the power of the story can carry the audience along for an entire show. That’s what Shakespeare does, what all the great playwrights do, really.

One of the first precepts I learned when writing poetry and prose in high school was this idea of “Occam’s Razor”. It was a philosophical ideal that one should only have what is needed, nothing else. Too much clutter on stage, the less clear the story. This is not just for design, either, but also goes for writing, directing and acting.

The next time you see a play or production, ask yourself, “yes, but can it be stripped of any clutter?”

You might find that in most cases, it probably could.

No comments: