There have been a wide variety of theatre gatherings in the last week: a NAMT conference in Seattle, an industry weekend at the Humana Festival, the traveling roadshow explicating the “New Beans” study, the New York City panel (prompted by the Mike Daisey flap) on truth in theatre. Having been unable to attend any of these, I have learned about them in the modern manner: via tweet, blog, livestream and archived video and audio. So without having sat at each and listened from beginning to end, without the opportunity to ask questions or make comment in real-time, these have all blended together for me.
What I take away from this stew of conversation and debate is an overriding desire for greater connection: between playwrights and theatres, between artists and audiences, between creative talents and administrators, between everyone and the truth. Though I didn’t particularly enjoy reading E.M. Forster’s Howards End, its epigram echoes, even if it has passed into the realm of cliché. Only connect.
This puts me in mind of one of my earlier musings, about how sporting events and civic gatherings unite everyone involved through the Pledge of Allegiance and the national anthem (baseball also reinforces this with the ritual singing of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seven inning-stretch). While I acknowledge that it’s not an easy task to find the right material for such a unifying act before the start of a theatrical production, and know of many people who would sooner leave than be forced into audience participation, I still ponder how the artists of a performance could be united with their audience even before the start of the show itself. Yes, a song before Ibsen could be jarring, and how could we unite given what I presume to be a general unfamiliarity with Norwegian folk tunes. But wouldn’t a mournful Irish ballad make a great preamble to many of the plays of O’Neill; what if we all followed the bouncing ball for several verses of “This Land is Your Land” before stories of immigrants, or of the dispossessed? Why must we wait until the end of a show, as with Hair, for the audience to dance together? Director Mark Lamos once had audiences dancing pre-show for a Twelfth Night, so that when the stage cleared and Orsino said, “If music be the food of love, play on,” his mournful plaint was felt by all who had participated in a party, not merely observed one. Not to in any way discount the value of pre-show discussions, which grow more prevalent, but a unifying experience is emotional and active, not didactic.
Another means of connection is one I’ve also championed for many years, namely that each and every time the playwright, composer, director, choreographer and/or designers of a production – together or separately – are in the house for a performance of a show of theirs, they should be invited to take a bow. On opening nights, it is not uncommon for the creative team to participate in the ovation, and while at times they can be awkwardly staged (in that they aren’t staged at all, and these unfamiliar people should be introduced), every performance can be an opportunity for the audience to see and respond to the full complement of creative artists who contributed to the production, not only the cast. While many of those artists might prefer anonymity, and of course many have moved on post-opening, they deserve recognition, an awareness of their presence only deepens the experience for the audience that has shared in their work. With better-known artists, the excitement can be palpable; Caryl Churchill’s presence merely as an audience member, not even a participating playwright, this past weekend at Actors Theater of Louisville yielded a rippling thrill across the Twitterverse, far beyond the theatre’s walls.
Most every theatre uses the first rehearsal/first reading as a day to introduce the company and the staff of a show, but in my experience, it’s incomplete. I recall being brought into rehearsal rooms, the staff circling the company, seated at tables, as one by one we did the Mouseketeer roll call of our names and titles. There might be a speech by the artistic director, and then by the production’s director (if different), perhaps a few words by the playwright, maybe a quick demonstration of the set model – and then we were sent back to our desks to go about our regular business. We were not invited to stay for the first reading, often told that it would make the company too self conscious; I wish that we had been required to stay and listen, that even at the most unformed step, every staffer should be made to be there at the birth of a new production, not just drop by for a wave and a bagel before things got messy. The same should probably hold true for that final rehearsal in the rehearsal hall; it further engages the staff in the creative process, and refamiliarizes the company with a staff that they may not have interacted with for some three weeks. I have heard of some companies that even hold readings of plays long before first rehearsal, with the roles divvied up among the staff – what a marvelous way to connect the staff with what they’ll soon be working on, and to connect the staff with each other.
Some theatres have sought to engage their audiences by making use of the newest technology, with “tweet seats” a cascading topic on blogs and in the mainstream media ever since a USA Today story in the fall. Regardless of your opinion of the practice, which is worthy of separate discussion, it is an effort, however primitive, to actively connect audiences with the work on stage and simultaneously with their friends and followers not in the theatre; depending upon their stage time, members of the company can even participate during the show, and I know of one artist who followed her east coast show in real time while she was back with her family in Los Angeles. While execution may vary, in a field where we talk about breaking down the fourth wall, or even shattering the proscenium barrier, technology is showing ways for artists and audiences to interact with those not even at the performance, with results still to be assessed.
I recognize that this is a laundry list of ideas, practices and possibilities, not a carefully argued thesis, and I hope that you will indulge me one last anecdote/example. As I mentioned above, the divide between staff and performers can be wide; there is not, for example, any essential reason for say, the business office to know the actors unless there’s a payroll problem. As a manager, I learned from example that I would need to make an effort to build such a connection even for myself, even though my name was on the program’s title page, since my work hours mostly ended just as shows began. But I knew that if I was in the building at half-hour, I should walk through the dressing rooms, say hello, see how everyone was feeling, and do the same in the lighting and sound booth, the box office, and so on, depending upon the particular geography of each theatre. I had been urged to do so even before I was a manager; it is one of the responsibilities I have missed most in the past 12 years.
Those rounds were never perfunctory, but they were usually casual, save for one night when we were producing the original multi-theatre co-production of August Wilson’s Jitney at Geva Theatre in 1999, during my first season as managing director there. While professionally Geva was a terrific theatre and work opportunity, it had taken me from family and friends and, personally, it was the most profoundly lonely period in my life. Jitney, as it turned out, broke that loneliness to a degree, because there were several actors in the company with whom I’d worked before and so, itinerants all, we felt a bond, especially on a show that came to us fully rehearsed, further minimizing the connection between the staff and cast. One night, though I knew it was only minutes to curtain, I decided it wasn’t too late to do my dressing room walk-through, only to find that the cast was gathering for their own nightly ritual, a prayer circle. Upon seeing me, the actor Keith Randolph Smith grabbed me and dragged me into the circle, ignoring my protestations of intruding. Although I felt awkward, it would have been deeply disrespectful to truly resist; although the prayers were offered in Jesus’ name and I am a non-practicing Jew, I joined in their ‘amen’ and invested it with true meaning. I was so moved to have been taken into the circle – no other staff member had ever been or ever was, included, I was later told – that I remain deeply honored to this day. I recall it as the first time I felt at home in Rochester. In hindsight, I only wish that every person working the show has been similarly included, each and every night.
Pray. Sing. Dance. Tweet. Discuss. Debate. But foster connection any way you can at the theatre. We are apparently all yearning for it, in our art, our marketing, our lives. And tell us all what you do to foster that connection, and how it works. There’s always new ways, and more to learn.