I shouldn’t be feeling ornery as holiday spirit is in the air, but I just read producer Ken Davenport’s newest blog, on theatrical effects, and it’s gotten me a bit riled. Before citing a list of his top five theatrical effects, Ken quotes Spider-Man bookwriter Glen Berger, and, assuming Ken captured the quote accurately, I’ll repeat it:
What really amazes an audience isn’t a big set piece. It’s how you can theatrically overcome narrative solutions. A simple, elegant solution is where the spectacle lies.
I’m riled because 80% of Ken’s list of theatrical effects and stagecraft strikes me as missing the point of theatre. We go to movies for effects, digital or not; we go to theatre for ingenuity, craft and theatricality, which doesn’t require technology. Spectacle is fine, and awe is great, but let me offer my list of some great theatrical effects:
1. Salieri’s transformation early in Amadeus. In the original production, the play began with an aged Salieri wrapped in blankets, clad in a skullcap and very wizened in years. But as his memory takes him back to the earliest days of his nemesis, Mozart, at court, the actor playing Salieri steps out of the chair and the black, peels back the skullcap, relaxes his face and adopts a young man’s voice – transformed into vitality before our eyes, through nothing but a casting off of rags and, oh yes, acting. (I have seen later productions in which the transformation is more gradual, and the magic is lost.)
2. The death of George and Martha’s son in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? [spoiler alert] As we agonize with George and Martha, Nick and Honey through the long, dark night and into the creeping dawn in Virginia Woolf, we are witness to a murder, the murder of a child terrorized by his banshee mother, disappointed by his milquetoast father. At his father’s hands we live through the boy’s death with his clutching mother, only to realize, if we have not already, that the boy never existed, and was the pawn in another of George and Martha’s marital games. Ultimately, our sorrow is at the realization of the depth of the “parents” dysfunction, yet it is, as per Mr. Albee, an exorcism, and perhaps now this couple has a chance at a healthier life together. This effect is achieved simply through the words of Edward Albee, as great a magician as the theatre has produced.
3. One cast, two plays, two theatres, at once. Alan Ayckbourn’s House and Garden, two interlinked plays in which the actors travel back and forth between the simultaneous action in two theatres, is a puzzle that reveals the fortitude of actors, the depth of a playwright’s imagination and the intricacy of the director’s task. I could easily list other Ayckbourn inspirations – the eight-play, 16-ending Intimate Exchanges, performed by a cast of two; Taking Steps, in which the actions in three apartments are played out simultaneously on the same single set – but that’s only because Ayckbourn is the master of the theatrical effect achieved with (and sometimes because of) great economy. Related examples are Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy and Michael Frayn’s Noises Off.
4. The transcendence of Vivian Bearing. Loathe as I am to use another death as an example, the ultimate passing of the central character in Margaret Edson’s Witmanages to show the human spirit leaving this world and ascending into some greater unknown. Its tools? An ever-brightening spotlight, and the human body, exposed to all in its frailty, beauty and imperfection. What is the greatest effect, after all, than life?
I did say that I disagreed with 80% of Ken’s choices, because the frying of actual bacon in David Cromer’s Our Town unquestionably has an impact, imparting an olfactory sense-memory in us all, its effect deepened by the original convention of Our Town being played out with its actions mimed and its scenery intuited. But this isn’t an effect, really, it’s a true action happening before our eyes, made special by the Spartan work that precedes it. This is reality, breaking through the artifice of theatre.
I love a helicopter or pyrotechnics as much as the next guy. But give me two men and a chair (as in Caryl Churchill’s riveting A Number) and I am perhaps at my happiest. A script, perhaps a score, actors, perhaps musicians, a director, maybe a choreographer, and the work of the subtlest of designers. That’s theatre – and theatre itself is theatre’s greatest special effect.
This post originally appeared on the American Theatre Wing website.