July 30, 2010

....and All the Men and Women Merely Players

Due to a random, unexpected and delightfully quirky amalgamation of circumstances, I had the opportunity to be involved in a very special project last weekend.  My brother the filmmaker doesn’t often ask for my input in his projects, so when he does I never say “no”.  Besides, the last time he asked for help I got to be involved in this and really, who wouldn’t come back to offer assistance after a project like that?

Filmmaking is a media which, despite my personal link to it, I hadn’t put a great deal of thought into.  Since we’ve already been over my abhorrent taste in movies, one can see why I’ve always viewed film as either Hollywood fluff of artsier than thou.  It’s not real art.  It doesn’t take real talent.  All you need to be involved in film is a bit of luck and a body to rival Kate Moss.  Film is the beautiful peoples’ playground, look the right way and you can be anything.

While that may still hold true for film actors (I’m sorry, I don’t have much respect for people who claim to be ACTORS without putting in the grunt work), boy was I wrong about the filmmaking process.

Moreover, the entire day got me thinking a great deal about live entertainment and theatre.  During the season, my brother the filmmaker works at Blood Manor, New York City’s premier haunted attraction.  As you can imagine, when you work at a haunted house you get to meet a wide and varied cast of characters.  Our film was about one of these characters.  As part of the film, we sat in on the veterans’ casting call and were allowed an exclusive tour of the manor (which, by the way, is pretty awesome and ridiculously scary- if you happen to be in New York around Halloween time you should definitely check it out).

Sitting in the one air-conditioned space of the giant Chelsea loft that is Blood Manor, I couldn’t help but be distracted from my duties as Script Supervisor and think about what was going on around me.  I was caught by several things.  The first was the terminology being thrown around.  The Blood Manor experience was consistently referred to as “the show”.  At first my inner snob began to raise her hackles, “Show?” She demanded, “This isn’t a show.  A show implies a stage, a show implies a script, a show implies rehearsal and pre-planning and training!” 

“But wait,” replied the inner scholarly advocate, “What about an improv show?  You can’t say that the pit  doesn’t produce shows!”

“…okay,” the snob conceded, “I take back the script.  But the Pit does rehearse!”

Then I started listening to the actors talk amongst themselves.  Despite a great dearth of actor pre-prep time at the manor, they definitely rehearsed.  All year, these people were thinking, pondering, coming up with ideas.  They would find pieces in second-hand shops and use that to add to a “routine” built over the course of the year.  They would think about how to scare someone while walking home from the subway.  These may not be fully trained Thespians, but they were definitely artists.

“Alright,” said the snob, “How about a stage?”

“Oh ho, my friend, remember what was written above the doors of Shakespeare’s globe; ‘totus mundus agit histrionum’; ‘all the world’s a stage’.”

Yes, I couldn’t see how this little ditty applied more pressingly to anything than it applied here.  Each area of the haunted house is referred to as “an environment”.  Each environment is cast with several characters native to that environment.  Thus, the stage is the house itself. 

My internal notion of theatre was suddenly shaken.  What does it really take to create theatre?  Can theatre be spontaneous?  Even though this house didn’t have the regular trappings of theatre, there is no doubt in my mind that what occurs here is a performance.  If you don’t need a stage, and you don’t need a script, what do you need to create theatre?

Luckily, Glynne Wickham has done some thinking about this as well.  In his book The Medieval Theatre, he recognizes five basic elements which create (at the most fundamental level) a theatrical event, “…the existence of a theatre, that is a stage and auditorium to contain it… imitation of actions in sequence, that is, a story line… some means of identifying person and place, costumes and setting… both actors and audience” (36).  Aforementioned haunted house, however, challenges Wickham’s idea ever further.  Without a clear story line, does this still fit the bill? 

Certainly there are stories inside the house as each environment depicts some snatch of a tale.  You enter a parlor, there are eviscerated bodies on the table and gore-soaked diners sitting at it.  Your mind, while frightened, also immediately begins to form concepts about the room.  This is the middle, there was a beginning, there will be an end.  Perhaps one of the actors then turns to you and says “We do this every Thursday at Ruth’s house.”  Suddenly now you have context.  The characters become more firmly defined.  You have a time period, it’s likely a Thursday night.  You even have a name, Ruth.  A story begins to take shape.

I suppose this is the difference between “theatre” and “a performance”.  “A performance” could fulfill one or many of Wickham’s requirements, but “theatre” must satisfy all of them. 

The snob shut her mouth and settled into the couch, clearly looking for another loophole in the argument.  The advocate took a sip of her chardonnay and smiled contentedly.  A truce, if precarious, had been reached.  At least for now.

Wickham, Glynne. The Medieval Theatre. New York: St. Martin's Press, 1974.

As a note, I am leaving on vacation today.  I will be outside of internet contact for two weeks so there won’t be any updates here, but don’t think I’ve forgotten about you.  I will return mid-August with stories of exploits which I may or may not share depending on their poignancy and pertinence.

Have a good couple of weeks!

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