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Theatre Against Actors, or When Did Our Art Become Craft?

In my post on the blog last week, Cheap Theatremaking, I discussed the tendency of some individuals on the performance or non-technical side of theatre to advocate minimal designs, and the negative reaction that can ensue from designers and production staff who feel their work may be undervalued.

This week I would like to look at things from the other perspective – that of the actors and performers.

As a stage manager, I am committed to a show from pre-production –  when ideas are being discussed and developed until all the elements are established for rehearsal – through all the rehearsals, tech, and run of a show. Therefore I gain a fully-formed perspective of the production. I come to understand the goals of the designers and plan the technical details that will make everything work together. Through rehearsals, I also come to understand the director’s vision for the show and for each one of the characters, and learn  what makes each character unique and what their goals and challenges are. I have the privilege of watching the show develop from the ground up, and participate by doing whatever I can to facilitate that process.

Through spending so much time on a project and getting to know its intimate details inside and out, I gain a deep love and respect for the work and the talents of all individuals involved. In turn, I try to bring my own love to the project by caring for its members and doing the very best work that I can.

I know that my fellow artists on the design and production team of that given show also love the work that they do. But too often I have found, at least in our educational setting, that many of them do not bring their love to the work that is actually happening in the rehearsal room. Some simply receive their assignments from their advisors, read the play, and design a show based on that text. They receive input from the director and their fellow designers in production meetings, but from my perspective, all of that work is hypothetical – it exists within a meeting and does not directly apply to the actual show we are creating. As the stage manager in the room, I can do my best to represent the show in those meetings. I can explain how staging and intention will affect the specific departments, and include notes for them in Rehearsal Reports (that maybe someone will read). But nothing will give them the sense of the show more clearly than seeing it in progress, in person.

You will almost never see designers at tablework rehearsals. And it’s true, tablework is not the most invigorating experience, particularly if you are not an actor trying to understand more about your character or relationships. But I have found that tablework can be incredibly helpful in getting an understanding of what our show is going to be. It helps establish the kind of world we are creating and teaches us about the individuals who will operate within that world. All of this information is critical to the design of a show – or at least, I think it should be considered such.

Too many designers see attendance in rehearsals as a chore, or a poor use of their limited time. They could be using that time for something more practical, they may think, than watching the actors stumble around. It is most common to see some designers present at a run of the act or the entire show in the rehearsal room, usually near the end of the process. While this is beneficial for making tech run more smoothly, it provides no opportunity for the departments to work together in actually creating the piece.

Therefore, a divide is formed between the show that is created in the rehearsal room and the show that is discussed by designers in production meetings. When both do come together in the same space, one world has to be made to fit within the other, instead of a collaborative mesh of both that serves the overall purpose. While we could be feeding off each others’ ideas and making choices according to the needs and aesthetic of what is actually happening in staging, we are instead too focused on our specific part of the process (our craft). Rather than creating a piece of theatrical art that is fluid and unified in sensibility, we check off boxes on our department’s to-do list, turn in paperwork to professors, and make a show within our individual frameworks.

Don’t get me wrong, the work created by my colleagues in Design and Production is incredibly talented, and consistently beautiful. The design choices made are appropriate, evocative, and carefully considered. They show a true knowledge of their craft and a sophistication in its execution. But as a witness to the creative evolution that occurs throughout a show’s rehearsal process, I cannot help but wonder how much more could be achieved with the designs if they were developed in direct conversation with those rehearsals.

I am writing in favor of bringing our attention, respect, and love back to the rehearsal room – where the real work on our production is actually happening. After all, what are we designing for if not the show created and nurtured by our actors and director? We cannot make art in isolated spheres. Let us remember why we do theatre again – for the stories, and the people who share them.  Not for the pleats and buttons, source-fours and movers, or any of the other stuff we put onstage. I have watched the evolution of many beautiful works in the rehearsal room, from genesis to final run, and I am continually amazed by the talents and tenacity of the performers who give their heart and soul to the production. I invite you to join me.

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One comment on “Theatre Against Actors, or When Did Our Art Become Craft?

  1. […] Theatre Against Actors, or When Did Our Art Become Craft? (dramalit.wordpress.com) […]

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