Saturday, May 10, 2008
Essentially, the play was a collection of Feynman’s stories drawn from his various memoirs, fused into a two-act drama by Peter Parnell and directed by Jon Lipsky. Many of the stories seem to have been drawn verbatim from Feynman’s published versions, so anyone who had read those books will have been familiar with much of the material. The lack of any new material, although not surprising, was perhaps somewhat disappointing – it would have been fascinating to see a more private side of Feynman on the stage, perhaps drawn more from his letters, than the bombastic figure he presented himself as.
More interesting, the play centred around a crucial moment for Feynman: his decision whether or not to undergo a dangerous operation that could potentially extend his life or end it. To see Feynman struggle with this decision produced some much-needed pathos and led to a moving climax. It helped that the role was well performed by Keith Jochim, who managed to add a certain level of multi-dimensionality to what otherwise could have been a rather flat character.
What I think most disappointed me about this (admittedly enjoyable) production was the lack of attention given to scientific ideas except as elements for exposition. There was, as one audience member noted in discussion after the show, “a lot of science in it”, but the scientific concepts never truly served as a motor for the dramatic action. Instead, this was a rather traditional piece about a man confronting his own mortality. Feynman’s profession almost seemed incidental – one imagines many would have felt similar feelings.
I would like to see a complementary piece developed which tried to dramatise the complex scientific concepts raised more explicitly. That might, perhaps, more fittingly demonstrate the benefits of scientists and dramatists collaborating in common endeavour.
Friday, March 7, 2008
It may seem odd for me to blog about this day-long workshop, as it wasn’t a theatrical performance. However, I’m starting to look at performances more generally in the hope of uncovering a universal ‘grammar of performance’ that applies whenever someone gets up in front of someone else and presents something.
Edward Tufte (website: http://www.edwardtufte.com) is an information-visualisation and design guru who has written four marvellous books, and in this workshop he presented his ideas. Most interesting for our purposes might be his six ‘principles of analytic design’ from ‘Beautiful Evidence’. The principles are:
Show comparisons, contrasts, differences.
Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systemic structure.
Show multivariate data; that is, show more than one or two variables.
Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.
Thoroughly describe the evidence. Provide a detailed title, indicate the authors and sponsors, document the data sources, show complete measurement scales, point out relevant issues.
Analytical presentations ultimately stand or fall depending on the quality, relevance, and integrity of their content.
In addition to these, we might add that Tufte, throughout his workshop, stressed the removal from data displays of any unnecessary ‘chartjunk’, which included colours that don’t add anything, pointless boxes around stuff etc. Essentially there was a kind of ‘design minimalism’ being stressed.
What I find most interesting about these six and the ‘design minimalism’ just described is that some of them can apply directly to performances, and some of them clearly don’t. A central difference between a visual display provided on paper and a live performance is that, while the display is fixed over time and can be looked at whenever one desires, the performance provides a succession of moments which will never come again. Therefore we might expect the idea of ‘design minimalism’ to be relaxed somewhat.
And, indeed, in Tufte’s performance this is precisely what we did see. In stark contrast to the ‘remove all unnecessary stuff’ approach he sticks to for his visual designs, Tufte repeated his key points many times during his performance, lightening the load with anecdotes and other ‘unnecessary’ information. These differences speaks to this key divide between data presented visually and data presented through speech, movement etc.
It is further interesting that Tufte’s first design principle, “Show comparisons, contrasts, differences”, was not followed uniformly in his own presentation. For example, I can think of no time at which he contrasted a piece of good design with a piece of poor design by placing one on each of the large screens that were projecting his presentation. This should be possible, and may well have been useful.
As for principles that might translate better, it seems to me that principle two, “Show causality, mechanism, explanation, systemic structure”, is a key concept in teaching, while principle four (“Completely integrate words, numbers, images, diagrams.”) might be extremely valuable in performances of all kinds.
In Tufte’s work, the purpose of this ‘complete integration’ is to use ‘whatever it takes’ to unlock the important information you are trying to present. The same principle might be applied, with little modification, to theatrical and other performances. The difference is in the symbolic languages we have at our disposal: instead of completely integrating “words, numbers, images, diagrams” we might look to “language, movement, lighting, costume” or somesuch. The principle would remain unchanged, however: use all the symbolic languages at your disposal (‘whatever it takes’) to create the effect you’re after, whether it’s helping your audience understand a set of quantitative data or a new interpretation of a play.
Saturday, March 1, 2008
The opening ‘lecture’ was extremely entertaining, consisting simply of Dr John Bell singing the words of his lecture to a very basic repeating melody (accompanied by the rest of the cast playing instruments) and pointing to various reproduced images taped to the wall. What was fascinating was the extent to which setting the words to music – music which didn’t at all ‘fit’ the words, which often overran the melodic line and altered natural spoken rhythms – made the performance compelling. This piece of music (I’m sure they won’t mind me saying) was not complex or particularly interesting in itself, and was clearly not made to suit the words being spoken (which themselves were not sung in an especially polished way) but nonetheless made the performance as a whole function extremely well.
How? My best guess at the moment is along these lines: by superimposing a musical structure onto a linguistic structure that doesn’t suit it the listener is forced to try to maintain the peculiarities of each in their mind. We not only have to listen to and recognise the musical structure presented but, as the music messes with the rhythms and intonations of the spoken word, we have to work hard to understand what is being said as well. Thus, the words don’t simply ‘wash over’ us – we work to uncover their meaning and thus they impinge upon our consciousness more dramatically.
Another great effect: in their first Toy Theater piece, ‘Blue Skies’, a tornado was created out of a cone-shaped piece of fabric attached to a hand-drill. The frantic whirling of the tornado made the whole scene shake, and eventually picked up a house! The effect was extremely convincing and demonstrated how much can be achieved due to the miniaturisation of the form: in a full-sized theatre such an effect would be far more difficult to produce, and may have been less powerful, as you would lose a sense of scale that the toy theatre allows you to achieve.
Also, the pieces raised interesting questions about the relationship of live performance to projected image, as here the performance was projected onto a screen above each toy theatre in real-time. Despite having a clear view of the theatre itself, I found myself looking up to the screen and back again, to compare the two experiences offered. I was surprised by how different they were: the slightly unfocused projection lent an air of dreamlike ‘reality’ to the scenes while watching the toy theatre itself allowed one to observe the performers manipulate each object. Often this added to the performance considerably: knowing that the person on stage-right was about to introduce a new character, say, or bring down the curtain infused each scene with a sense of anticipation that would not have been present if the performers were hidden. In addition an appreciation of the extreme skill of these performers added to the power of the piece.
Finally, I found myself convinced by the argument, raised in the preceding ‘lecture’, that the toy theatre mode represents a step away from mass-produced, impersonal art that is made to be consumed. In a surprising parallel to today’s user-created-content the toy theatre represented an opportunity for people to create their own entertainment from basic tools supplied by others, and this message was reinforced in these performances by the simple materials used by the performers to create their remarkable effects.
Go see Great Small Works!
All started well with joyous music provided by the Second Line Social Aid & Pleasure Society Brass Band and the arrival of a crazed Santa Claus narrator figure played by Peter Schumann (the founder of the troupe) himself. However, here things, from my perspective, began to go downhill. At the end of the evening I felt somewhat baffled, and had to admit that at times during the performance I had been bored.
What might have been the problem? Terry Byrne, writing in the Boston Globe, points the way with this opening comment: “"The Divine Reality Comedy" is not as sharply focused as some of his [Schumann’s] past efforts”. And although Byrne feels that the piece eventually redeemed itself, I’m not so sure. Part of the problem was that the expected resonances with Dante’s ‘Divine Comedy’ were almost entirely absent: Bread and Puppet’s version followed neither the structure nor, really, the tone of the original.
Furthermore, the succession of images was at times so obscure, so abstracted, that it even seemed self-indulgent. The following quote, from Claudia La Rocco of the New York Times, is telling: “a wondrous dance occurs between large white equine cutouts and their handlers, the [chorus]. These horses, with their wise eyes and impossibly arched backs, were half Chagall and half Steig in appearance. Who knows what allegorical purpose they serve; they seemed far too real to serve any purpose but their own.” The problem is that if we can’t see ‘what allegorical purpose they serve’, they will have difficulty functioning effectively as a symbol. And, while it may well be useful to occasionally encounter images that have no symbolic connections we can relate to our own experiences, in this case I felt there were too many of them to create a coherent piece.
During one of many interludes in which the part-volunteer group brought together for this performance (who generally played their roles excellently) walked aimlessly about the stage I had the feeling that this was a performance on behalf of the performers, rather than the audience – precisely the opposite of what I expected to find at Bread and Puppet. So, while there were moments of beauty and power, I was left feeling somewhat let-down.
Friday, February 15, 2008
I’d like to focus on a single incongruous element, however: above the stage were hung three huge, white rings, intertwining with each-other. These rings could light up with a bright white light, and before the show lights travelled round and round the rings creating an interesting visual effect - indeed, a rather distracting visual effect: there were moments in the performance when it was quite difficult to watch what the actors were doing (not much – it’s quite a sedate play) due to the gymnastics of the ring-lights.
This is a good example of a case in which a potentially-compelling design-element has been implemented poorly. Here is a play about the meeting of two great physicists which explores to some degree their scientific ideas. And above the stage you have a huge contraption that could be used at specific points to reinforce that message. However, the device was only used a single time for that purpose. The rest of the time it was more a distraction than a help – something one audience member commented on after the show: “That thing was driving me crazy!”
A quote from Louise Kennedy’s ‘Boston Globe’ review is enlightening:
“above their heads and ours, three giant translucent loops, in the familiar configuration that says "atom," pulse regularly but unpredictably with flashes of light. Each particle follows its own path, crossing or avoiding or affecting the paths of others, in a pattern more intricate and more variously influenced than an observer can grasp.”
If an observer can’t grasp any reason why the lights are moving in the way they move, and therefore can’t link them meaningfully to the stage-action, then the apparatus will not convey anything other than “atom” – and this strikes me as an effect that could be achieved otherwise without the complex gadgetry.
One can only imagine that, with the extremely sparse set and bare staging, the rings might have cost a significant proportion of the production budget. It is a shame, therefore, to see them so poorly used.
Wednesday, January 30, 2008
On the on hand, it is clearly very visually arresting and features some excellent performances. It’s periodically funny, and makes some effective cuts to the score to maintain the narrative drive on the screen. It’s certainly worth going to see, and is overall an enjoyable experience. However, I felt that the film didn’t fully come together. I was left, ultimately, with a nagging sense of unfulfillment, and that’s what I want to explore today.
For me, the central problem was the flat, conversational tone that the movie never seemed to shift. All the songs, and every scene, were performed as if it were routine, as if a damper had been put on all emotions. Todd’s killings for example, though gruesomely blood-soaked, were enacted with such nonchalance that they lost the power to appall, frighten or excite. While this was intended to show Todd’s obsession with killing Judge Turpin, it served instead to undermine the dramatic intensity of these scenes, which quickly became routine and somewhat flat.
I think perhaps part of the issue here is that the eminently theatrical language in which the musical is written has not been transposed to the screen with complete success. While it’s possible on stage to switch nimbly between scenes of deep emotional turmoil and macabre, carnivalesque violence, on screen it’s not quite as easy. Here, Burton creates such a strong visual setting for the piece, and establishes such a strong tone of strange emotional detachment that the film isn’t able to support the larger, more ebullient musical numbers or the joyfully extravagant ruthlessness with which Todd dispatches his victims.
While I recognize and value Burton’s seeming desire to find the emotional realism that could be obscured by a more over-the-top interpretation, I think here he’s gone too far in the other direction, obscuring the delightful insanity that is at the true heart of this musical.
Sunday, January 27, 2008
I arrived at The Pit maybe three hours ahead of the start of the show: it was completely sold out, and I was hoping to be first in line for returns. First in line I was, and as I was waiting outside the theatre there were quite a number of people milling about, deep in discussion. At one point I remember looking up from my book and doing a double-take: there was Peter Brook! He was scheduled to take part in an interview after the show, and was clearly there ahead of time to make sure everything was in order. I didn’t at that time have quite the confidence I enjoy today, and I didn’t dare approach him. Instead I quickly took a few photos on my phone, and tried to hear what was being said – they were speaking in French (which I don’t speak that well) and quietly, and I couldn’t make it out.
Eventually, he entered the theatre, and more people arrived for the returns queue, so I had to stand at the front of the line. About an hour before the show a ticket opened up, and I was faced with a conundrum: take the ticket, which offered only a side-view and wouldn’t allow me to see the English subtitles, or wait and hope another ticket became available. I decided to wait, and ten-minutes before the show began (after I was getting extremely worried that I had let my opportunity to see the production pass me by) another single ticket, with a full view, was returned.
I took it immediately, and entered the theatre with great excitement, taking my seat in a middle row roughly opposite stage-centre. I was surprised to see two free seats to my right, when there was a huge line of people waiting for a ticket who couldn’t get in. However, seconds before the piece began, two people came to fill those seats: Peter Brook and a female companion! So, I had the rather bizarre experience of watching the play while myself being watched by Brook, who was clearly enjoying my enjoyment - I was once told that watching me watch a play can be better than the play itself! Of course, I kept sneaking a look to my right to see if I could catch any sense of how he was receiving his work, but he was somewhat sphinx-like and displayed little in his face.
At the end of the performance he got up to take the stage for his interview, and as he passed me I was able to exclaim (perhaps somewhat over-familiarly) “Thank you, Peter!” In a way that I improbably hoped would express my admiration for all his work over the decades. He did not respond.
The interview was fascinating. He spoke about simplicity in the theatre not being something to aim at, but the result of the recognition that some things are better ‘left to themselves and with space around them’. He expressed his feeling that ‘theatre is about human beings. And there’s nothing more interesting than a human being revealing itself.’ He used an analogy for his process of ‘elimination’, saying ‘instead of a colourful glass, try a clear one: we want to see the water!’ He stressed that playmakers should, instead of trying to start with nothing, overdo and then decide what they want to keep – thus ‘distilling’ the work.
Of extreme interest, particularly as relates to the focus of this blog, was his contention that “there is good, very good, bad and abominable acting. Objectively.” And that the quality of a performance (and, by extension, a work) should be judged relative to the effect it attempts to produce and its success in producing that effect.
He described the rehearsal process as ‘working from a hunch…feeling that certain activities are worth doing’, and he suggested that, as the rehearsals progress, the hunch becomes collective, and form appears. When asked ‘What happens if the piece isn’t going anywhere?’ he responded reassuringly with “That is the basis of the process. It happens all the time.”
He also had some fascinating insights into Chekhov, and a take on Russian theatre-history I hadn’t heard before. If people are interested I could go into it in more detail in a note. For now, I think the above is enough to describe this remarkable encounter – one I feel very privileged to have experienced.
In contrast to many of the other acts of the evening, this was very simple: just a single male singer wearing a somewhat absurd blue tuxedo and ‘singing’ Jacques Brel’s ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ under a spotlight. Slowly as he sings the spotlight shifts to his right, and the singer moves to remain inside it, until walking into a piece of the scenery. The spotlight continues, and he hurries to catch it up. When it seems he has regained his position in the spot, it continues to move, capturing his outstretched arm, then only his hand crooked in an emotional plea to his unseen love.
The act continues in this manner, with the spot moving and the performer trying vainly to catch up while still singing his song. The spot starts to vanish completely only to reappear in a different place, requiring the performer to run to catch it. At one point it hovers just above his head, and he jumps up and down trying to stay in the light. Eventually he’s sitting on audience-members’ laps and climbing the scenery, and finally the spot directs him to a point on the floor which he falls into, and he sings the last phrase with his head, lit by a handheld torch, sticking out of this ‘manhole’.
For such a simple act, based around a single dramatic impetus, it drew peals of hysterical laughter and well-deserved applause. Why? How does this little scene become so funny and riveting to watch?
The choice of song and the singer’s performance are, of course, part of the scene’s success. ‘Ne Me Quitte Pas’ is an iconic song that many in the audience can be expected to know (especially a French-speaking audience like those in Cirque’s native Canada) and, due to Brel’s own emotionally-charged performances is ripe for parody that hams it up to the point of ridicule. Claudio Carniero’s performance as the singer, with his slicked-back hair and furious pouting, brings out the latent absurdity in the song effectively, and adds to the comic mix.
But key to the success of this act is the very simple idea of a wayward spotlight and a performer’s struggles to remain within it. The situation has inherent dramatic tension, in that the audience soon realizes what is going on and begins to think “Where will the spotlight appear next?” At the same time, the dramatic possibilities of the situation are stretched to the extreme: the spotlight appears in the most unlikely of places, requiring the performer to climb scenery, leap across the stage and even leave it and enter the audience. This is accompanied with a striking attention to detail, as the singer leans more and more horizontally to stay lit, or extending his arm and seeing the spot travel along it to his fingertips. A lesser dramaturg would not have explored the potential of the central dramatic idea so fully, and much of the excitement would have been lost.
Furthermore, the singer’s desperate attempts to regain the light make a comment on the act of performance itself. The efforts of our singer recall the scrabbling of so many who want to be in show business and who will do anything to get into the limelight. As such, the piece becomes delightfully self-referential, commenting on the act itself and the show in which it is contained.
As such, this simple dramatic motor drives four minutes of completely riveting theatre: funny, exciting and meaningful.
Saturday, January 26, 2008
I am therefore delighted to state, quite categorically, that this production was an absolute triumph, and a model example of how to bring the big-screen to the big-stage. In keeping with this blogs raison-d’être, what follows is not a review (although the show is fantastic) but what I’m calling a ‘critique’: I’m trying to examine how the show achieved the effects it did, and why it might have worked so well as a piece of drama. As such, this piece may have something of a different focus to many – it will include minor spoilers, but not any rundown of the plot etc. I’m more interested in selecting and analyzing bits of the show which demonstrate how it functioned as art.
Possibly most striking was the way the two different worlds, that of the humans above and the mermaids beneath, were characterized. The use of different lighting schemes (a deep orange for the human world, and a rich blue for the mermaids’) immediately brought the distinction to the fore, an effect that was amplified by the huge rotating ‘sun’ that hung above centre-stage and became stunning sea-jewel when we were ‘Under the Sea’. The first scene exemplifies the slick transitions between worlds that characterize this production: the curtain rises to reveal a ‘ship’, itself orange and gold and emblazoned with sun-imagery, floating serenely on the ‘waves’ with a beautiful golden backdrop. After the first number the ship and ‘waves’ rise above the stage, and we are given the impression of floating down to the depths of the ocean. As we descend the orange backdrop become blue, and the sun rotates to become the sea-jewel. Furthermore, the ship itself is essentially made up of two large ‘pendulums’ with astrolabe-like markings on them, lending it a technological air – and this distinction between the technologically-driven society of the humans and the magic-based one of the mermaids is maintained throughout the show.
Another episode which shows how fully these two societies have been conceived, and how carefully contrasted comes later, when we meet the women of Prince Eric’s (Sean Palmer) court. In comparison to the mermaids (who, ingeniously, ‘swim’ about the stage on those shoes with the wheels in the heels, enabling them to glide effortlessly and walk normally as required) the women of the court had huge spherical bustles which bounced up and down as they walked. This gave them a weighty solidity and ungainliness in contrast to the mermaid’s beautiful gliding, and enabled Ariel (Sierra Boggess), who did not wear such a bustle, to seem graceful and expressive in her movements.
Indeed, the entire section during which Ariel is mute was elegantly handled. Having your leading-lady lose her voice for most of the second act presents a significant difficulty to any producers of a show based on this story, and the theatre has no recourse to close-ups or other filmic conventions to show the fine facial expressions that might enable Ariel to ‘speak without speaking’. The producers of this musical handled the problem quite ingeniously. First they use well-staged sections in which Ariel sings her ‘inner-thoughts’ for the benefit of the audience. While potentially something of a cop-out, these sections succeed in becoming musical soliloquies that don’t seem at all out of place. The second approach, however, is even better: a new song (‘One Step Closer’) introduces the idea that “A dance is like a conversation”, and Eric teaches the mute Ariel to dance to express her emotions in lieu of speech. As well as being a great new song, this section also became a delightful commentary on the expressive capacity of art. This concept is emotively realized in a later scene in which Ariel, instead of singing to win Eric’s heart, dances for him – and through her dance, he knows her.
Finally, for pure theatrical extravagance, I must give a nod to the wonderful ‘Les Poissons’ scene. The film version of this scene is already so over-the-top that I was surprised at how perfectly they managed to catch it on stage. The absurd overhanging belly and hugely tall chef’s hat worn by John Treacy Egan effortlessly conjured the maniacal chef of the movie: evidence that costume-design can transfer a film-image to another medium. One of the stand-out scenes of the production.
There were a couple of less-effective decisions that deserve to be noted, both related to the ending. Most significantly, the decision to have Ariel defeat Ursula (the marvelous Sherie Rene Scott) instead of Eric was, I think, a mistake. Withstanding the significant challenges of realizing on-stage the wonderful scene in which his ship pierces Ursula’s breast, by having Ariel defeat the play’s nemesis a crucial element of its dramatic balance is upset. The film has a balance that the play does not, then: Ariel saves Eric from drowning, and in return he saves her (and her father) from Ursula’s machinations. By having Ariel triumph alone, the reconciliation between the two-worlds (reminiscent of a happy-ending Romeo and Juliet) seems a little forced, for what has Eric done to ‘deserve’ Ariel? Likewise, having the undersea and landlubber courts dance together at the end somewhat undermines the dramatic impetus of the plot: for if mermaids can live with man through the wave of a Trident, why turn Ariel into a human at all? Nonetheless, it provides a great finale and can be forgiven as the product of deserved exuberance.
These slight flaws, though, do nothing to diminish the overall effectiveness of this wonderful production. Go see it, and after you’ve seen it come back here and comment on what I’ve written – perhaps you’ll get a richer understanding of how the powerful effects created function dramatically, or perhaps you’ll violently disagree. In either case, please feel free to comment and add your thoughts about this startling piece of theatrical magic.
Thursday, January 24, 2008
Perhaps you are there to forget yourself, to immerse yourself in fantasy and fly away. Perhaps, instead, you seek thrills and excitement, or are drawn by the allure of the forbidden. Maybe you just want to laugh, and feel your worries slough off like shed skin. You may even be there to be terrified or made miserable, to see horrors unfold before your eyes.
But one thing is certain - the experience should leave you with fresh ways to view the world beyond the theatre-walls, new perspectives that enrich your life outside. Ideally, your experience in the theatre should help you learn something, help you understand the world better - or at least differently. The shared-experience the theatre offers should not cease to affect you when you exit the space, but stay with you, nudging you towards new ways of seeing.
The Theatre of Thought is dedicated to providing such experiences. When we create or critique a show our primary perspective will be this: 'What can the audience learn from this? How will their ideas be advanced or challenged? How enduring are the new lenses this piece offers? How fully does it enrich the lived-experience of the theatre-goer?'
Of course, no dramatic offering can be successful without commanding the attention of the spectator, so a second strand of inquiry will seek to examine whether the work is compelling, and for which audiences it can be expected to function most fully.
Finally, as students of dramatic form, we will ask the questions 'How does this work work? How is it achieving the effects it achieves?'
We hope that these musings, informed by aesthetic philosophy, poetics, cognitive research etc. will be of value to those who love watching and making theatre and those who want to develop a better understanding of how theatre does what it does.
Welcome to the Theatre of Thought!