Play or Production (What’s Your Function?)

December 13th, 2010 § 0 comments

My parents were not theatergoers. That is not to suggest that they didn’t enjoy theatre, but for reasons of time, finances and priorities, I was taken to theatre (at least that I can recall) only twice by my parents.

Consequently, it was once I began working in this business that my parents had their most consistent opportunities to see theatre. That is not to say they were omnivores, gorging on complimentary tickets; I had to choose rather carefully for their tastes. I can best sum that taste up by explaining that they saw most every show produced at Goodspeed during my four years working there (and for many years after), while I’m not sure they saw even a half-dozen during my eight years at Hartford Stage.

The great plus in this was that I had my own two-person focus group handy whenever I needed them, and they would often prove instantly insightful without any provocation. “This isn’t a review,” commented my father one time, reading a particularly non-committal piece of ostensible criticism in a major Connecticut paper. “It’s a book report. I can tell he saw it, but have no idea what he thought.”

That said, my parents were just happy to enjoy a show, and for many, many years, when I would point out some aspect of a production that I didn’t feel was quite right, I would hear their endless refrain, “You’re just too picky.”

On one rare occasion, my parents had the opportunity to see a new show in workshop when I was running The O’Neill. When that musical was later produced at Goodspeed at Chester, they asked to see it again. Why did less-than-die-hard theatergoers opt to see the same material a second time? Simple. They had liked it so much in the barn at The O’Neill that they wanted to enjoy it once more, but this time with sets, costumes, props and a proper rehearsal period.

When the performance was over at Goodspeed, they carefully waited until no one could overhear, then my mother leaned in and whispered, “Why isn’t it funny anymore? It was so funny at The O’Neill.” They were disappointed and clearly stumped, since in fact the show had undergone little revision, but it was, in fact, just laying there on the Goodspeed stage after soaring at The O’Neill. And that’s when I tried to explain to my parents the difference between a play and a production. I don’t recall what I said, but I think they got at least some of it.

I wish I could have that same sort of conversation with everyone who goes to the theatre, because I think it is a concept that is central to the creative work of theatre, but least understood by the audience.

Admittedly, understanding how to differentiate between play (and for the sake of simplicity, please know I include musicals as well) and production is difficult for almost anyone when seeing a world premiere. When a text is in progress right up to its opening night, when artists – director, designers, actors – are interacting with the playwright’s words for the first time, it can be very difficult to know exactly how they have impacted upon each other when every element is brand new. It is entirely possible that the director invented a piece of stagecraft that the playwright never envisioned; actors’ personalities and skills may cause their characters to evolve a certain way; their suggestions may inform the writing as well.

On premieres, even those of us in the business don’t always know. After all, we may also feel something is amiss in a debut production, but it’s not always possible to tease out what feels wrong, since we have no yardstick with which to measure the relative success of the text (the play) or the production (the direction, the acting choices, the design).

This is a shame, because many a new play that receives a less than optimal production can have its future life derailed. I vividly recall the physical production of the originalLa Bête on Broadway in 1991, but when I heard it would be revived, I was blank on the play. After this revival, I now believe I have been able to truly see (and will remember) the play. And not to harp on Matthew Warchus productions, but having found the film of Boeing-Boeing unwatchable, an opinion apparently shared by the press and audiences upon its Broadway premiere in 1965, I can only think that the blame lies with the productions, since the Broadway revival was a riot.

Revivals, or simply subsequent productions, are where the distinction between play and production come into greater relief. If we have seen Hamlet in full 17th century regalia, we understand immediately that the play remains Hamlet even when we see it again, but with our hero in a hoodie, or a business suit. We begin to see where a director’s vision has acted upon a text, and if you see multiple Hamlets, it also becomes clearer how each actor’s interpretation changes our impression of this young man.

Why is this important to me? Because I think there are too many times where a play can get a bad rap because of its first production – and that as a result, audiences can be scared away from new plays.

Inside of a theatre, we are all excited by new plays. The opportunity to be there at the inception of a new work (maybe even get our name in the printed edition), is a heady, thrilling thing. It’s why we got into the business, to experience creation. As a result, we believe that the audience shares our enthusiasm.

Au contraire.

At Goodspeed, whose work is as audience-friendly as you can get, we were confounded when audience members told us that Goodspeed at Chester, our second stage, was where the “experimental” work was done. Experimental? In progress — yes. Receiving its first production — sure. But experimental? This work was as far from the avant-garde of Richard Foreman and Robert Wilson as I am in looks from Hugh Jackman. So where did that impression come from – and linger – after well over a decade of productions?

When I was up at Geva Theater in Rochester, I noticed a peculiar tic on the part of the audience, even of the board. If an unknown work was produced and proved popular, then people remembered its name. If it was generally disliked, it was shrugged off with the pejorative of “that new play,” a vague plot synopsis substituting for a title.

New is not a good word for many audiences. It’s a warning sign flashing “Danger – ahead lies the unknown,” and not everyone likes surprises.

There’s a corollary to this, which takes me back to the issue of play and production. That’s the frequency with which, when a new work doesn’t fully succeed, a certain phrase recurs in conversation with theatre patrons: “Why on earth did they ever pick this play?” Complete dismissal of the project and the process, incredulity that anyone had found value in it.

No artistic director or commercial producer chooses work with the intention of it failing. But sometimes it does, in part or whole. Maybe the play doesn’t truly work, or maybe the production doesn’t develop it and further reveal it. However, no one set out to produce something unsatisfying. Those are the moments when I wish that audiences could better ascertain the distinction between play and production, giving the author, and the producers, the benefit of the doubt and understanding that the artistic process is imprecise. It is not manufacturing, it is creation.

So how do we tackle this problem? It cannot simply be explained. I believe we can never put ourselves in the position of explicitly educating our audiences, lest they see theatre as a chore to tolerated – or avoided. The distinction between play and production must be demonstrated, and I suspect artists are better equipped to devise a means to do that than anyone.

Once at Hartford Stage, Mark Lamos conducted a master class, in which over the course of 90 minutes, with two actors who had just met, he set about to do a cursory staging of a mere 14 lines from Romeo and Juliet, explaining bits of the text to the actors (and audience) and suggesting some rudimentary blocking. Then with a bit of time left, he took the same actors through the first 24 lines of Act V, scene i of The Merchant of Venice, where Lorenzo and Jessica have just spent the night together. Mark had the actors play up the sexuality of the scene, the post-coital bliss, forcing these strangers into immediate intimacy, which they literally embraced at his direction. And then he asked them to do the scene again, giving them only a single note of direction to alter the approach: “Now do it as if the sex was bad.” And they did so with all of the awkward pauses, avoided glances and disappointment they could muster. The audience gasped, then broke into applause. The infinite variety of play vs. production was laid bare.

For those of you reading this who are members of the audience, I hope you will take every opportunity to discern the difference between play and production, as I think it will give you an even greater appreciation for the performances you enjoy, as well as the ones you don’t. Unless you have a script in hand (easy when in England, all too rare in the U.S.), you can’t work apart the intertwined strands. I offer no easy prescription, no declarative key that will unlock these mysteries, only the hope that they can be increasingly understood, especially so that formative work with be taken in its true context, not viewed as a final, immutable product, and supported even when it comes up short in your eyes.


This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.

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