Monday, May 10, 2010

A Modest Tutorial

I don't have advanced degrees in any aspect of theatre, and scant experience in productions. But neither does William Goldman, who got his education and experience in writing. I have long admired his book on Hollywood and screenwriting, Adventures in the Screen Trade, but I had never read his book on a year of Broadway theatre (1967-68) called The Season. Until about a month ago.

Like Adventures, it's fun to read, well-crafted and opinionated. And again, I don't agree with all his opinions, but there was one observation that jumped out at me that I agreed with completely--because I had said exactly the same thing in this 2009-10 season on the North Coast.

Goldman was writing about the staging of a musical that failed, directed by a famous name with major credentials. Goldman complained that "he had the bulk of the action taking place on stage at a distance far removed from the audience, making the show, in a musical-comedy sense, all but invisible."

I said something like that, but here's the part that's nearly word-for-word: "Most musicals need to be brightly lit and played as close to the footlights as possible so that the audience can see and hear them."

That just makes sense, it's just extrapolation, as well as (I would guess) veteran lore. When I said it, I was just stared at as if speaking an alien language. Goldman got a different response, or at least he made one up, with the story about an encounter with three theatregoers after the show, that follows the above observation:

"Well, it's not as bad as they say," the first said. The second said, "I liked that patriotic number a lot." A man walking out ahead of them turned and said, "May I tell you why you liked that number?" The ladies nodded.

"Because it was done down by the footlights. You could see it."

"Yes!" all three ladies said, and they all but jumped up in the air on the word.

Since I was the man walking out ahead of them, I can swear to the veracity of the anecdote.

I suspect that part of why such observations seem alien is that they basically come from the experience of being in the audience, a point of view that both academics and professionals can too easily forget.

There are other such simple rules, violated at the peril of everything else that goes into a production. For example, the David Letterman rule: if you want the audience to laugh, keep the theatre temperature cool. People don't laugh when they're too warm and drowsy. (However, after attending an outdoor performance one cold clear night last week I would add the corollary, but not too cold. It's hard for people to laugh when their teeth are clenched.)

People stare at me when I mention this as well. But all the hard work, the actors' sweat, the creative blocking, the expensive scenery, the ads and the opening night buffet--they all depend on people laughing, and ventilation is dangerous to ignore.

Here's another Old School comedy rule: make sure there's a Laugher in the audience. Somebody who laughs out loud. It's not just that laughter is infectious, but that the audience needs permission to laugh. Especially these days, when the appropriate response to plays isn't always clear, and life is complicated--people may worry if they laugh at the wrong stuff, they will either embarass themselves or offend someone. So whenever possible, don't leave it to chance. Get a Laugher.

There was a great Laugher behind me at the preview of Glorious! at Redwood Curtain. In fact she was so loud that she nearly deafened me. That she was an actress, and the vocal coach of the leading lady, doesn't matter. The time to be embarrassed is after the show is a success, because people laughed. Assuming of course that it's funny (something else that was missing at that outdoor show.)

Of course, you don't have to listen to me. Or Bill Goldman. But don't say we didn't warn you.

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