Sunday, April 10, 2011

Too Much Concept

What is it about theater and “concept”?

I have spent a good portion of my life in and around the theater, mostly in various backstage capacities. My glory years were spent in lighting, which not only offers you the chance to test the limits of both acrophobia and burn scarification but also lets you see the show itself, albeit from odd angles way up in the rafters. After a while, you sort of expect to see shows that way – I find sitting in the house a bit jarring anymore.

And most times all I notice is the lighting anyway.

So when the girls were off at yet another birthday party sleepover last night and Kim suggested going to see the latest production down at Home Campus, I was of two minds. On the one hand, there is only so much lighting one can look at if one is not actively involved in it, although unlike Niagara Falls and the Gateway Arch it does change, so that’s something. On the other hand, part of my commission as Performing Arts guy on Home Campus is to be the usher of last resort, and since I had managed to botch finding others to do that in the rush of events last week, well, I had to be there anyway. Might as well see the show.

It was the sort of show that probably won an award somewhere.

There were no real “scenes” in the show – just random bits of dialogue from the various characters in different parts of the stage, each one brightly and suddenly lit by a pool of light that just as quickly went black to draw your attention to the next bit of random dialogue. Much of the dialogue was all to do with people coupling and uncoupling in various ways, with Deeply Significant repeated bits of received wisdom, often in the form of urban legends, proper names or declarative cynicism, echoing through like raindrops on a tin roof, and a subplot involving a serial killer that gradually takes over what little plot there is.

I kept waiting for the Sad Clown of Life to make an appearance, but apparently that was only implied.

Now, look. I understand how difficult it is to pull off something like this as an actor – that took a lot for them to make it work. And the lighting was nicely done, although somebody did need to tell the actors to hit their marks a bit more accurately. In the battle between the lighting designer and the director the lighting designer almost always wins, as measured in terms of the ability of the audience to see the actors’ faces, but I can say from experience that it is not a very satisfying victory. So it was a well-done performance in the main. They did a nice job with what they had.

But you know, it was all … so … deep.

The actors didn’t even break character in what passed for the curtain call, which I found off-putting. I’m not clapping for the characters, most of whom were the sorts of people you’d cross the street to avoid. I’m clapping for the actors, who did a nice job of bringing those characters to life and deserve some recognition for it.

Too often theater is taken over by “concept” – the kinds of Big, Meaningful Ideas that actual drama gets subordinated to in order to get a message across, much to the annoyance of the audience, who generally reject such things in my experience, or the Gee Whiz Methods of staging a production that only leave people confused.

Most perpetrators of concept regard this as a failing on the part of the audience. But this is not true. It ignores the central purpose of the theater, which is to tell a story – one that will hold an audience’s attention. If you’re good at it, you can make them think a bit. Or laugh. Or, if you’re really good, both.

It is a cardinal sin in theater to condescend to an audience, but a sin that gets tired with repetition.

And I get to be there again today.


Janiece said...

It sounds like your daughter's gig was far more entertaining. At least it was educational...

David said...

It was indeed.

I don't eat pizza with anchovies either, come to think of it. Perhaps I'm part dinosaur.