No sets please, we’re Canadian.

When we talk about the value of theatre (and we do here in the theatrosphere, a lot), the heart of these conversations usually lands somewhere around the word ‘experience’. As in: what experience does the theatre offer its patrons and practitioners that no other art form can provide? Ask this question of most theatre-makers and you’re likely throwing wide floodgates that can’t be soon shut. What follows then, out here on teh internets, is a cry for brevity from those in its corners that would dispense with florid analysis; just the bullet points please, thank you very much. Then there are they who will respond to the very question with indignation, and righteously pronounce that they do not, will not, defend their chosen art form any longer, nor waste any more precious cyber space on the discussion. The point that these people are missing, however, is that it’s not a discussion about defending theatre – theatre will do that just fine on its own – it’s about composing marketing copy.

Now, there has been the odd occasion where I have found myself mired in a production that makes even me question the value of theatre. I have sat through some…stuff that has made me want to quit theatre altogether. This is the risk inherent in a field with no sense of competition, I suppose. (Again, a compelling argument for the value of theatre criticism.) But then I’ll inevitably go to a different play that clearly and resoundingly reminds me of the incomparable symbiotic experience that stage can be. Because done well, and done confidently, there can be built an exquisite balance of trust between player and witness that knits them together as complicit participators in the work as a whole. This balance is possible because of a silently understood contract between us and them, which may be simply stated as this: if you believe that the conditions of your stage world are real, so will I. There’s power in that.

It’s the work I saw at Mag North Wednesday night that brought that back to me. Toronto’s Volcano Theatre traveled here with their award-winning Michael Redhill play Goodness, and what a perfectly convenient work to take on tour; despite the fact that it takes its five actors from Toronto to Poland to the UK, the entire set consisted merely of a couple of chairs. The lighting was simple yet entirely evocative throughout. And the wonderful soundtrack of harmonized world music? Mostly provided by the actors themselves. Awesome. They slid through multiple roles with no costume changes and relied on the most minimal of props, some merely indicated where possible. And the thing is, I believed every bit of it, so precise was the commitment to character and place. A sound contract fulfilled with open hearts by both parties.

I wonder sometimes when we’re budgeting and looking for expenditures to cut if we don’t put too much weight on set dec and over-thought design when we could be putting more trust in the playwright and the facility of the actors.

Not that I’m suggesting that we become a nation of mimes. (Ew.) If a character is required to bake cookies, they should probably have a stove on stage. But do we have to build the entire kitchen? If we work harder on fulfilling our terms of the contract we shouldn’t have to, and it’s a worthy ambition to be recognized as a country full of theatre artists who need only a script, a stage and an audience to be brilliant.

Anyone else see the value in that?

7 thoughts on “No sets please, we’re Canadian.

  1. I love productions like that. Big productions (sets, lights, costumes, flying by Foy) seduce (yes, it hurts so good) our patrons into being spectators. Minimalist productions (sliding scales within nuances within degrees) invite patrons to be what Boal calls “spect-actors.”

    These production need you more. And they need more of you.

    There’s something…magical (ew)… about the moment when an actor who is baking cookies pulls them from the oven (a nondescript table in the corner) and the spect-actors “smell” them. Or Mark Rylance as Cleopatra before an audience who is allowed/required to transform him into the Queen of the Nile.

    But pardon, and gentles all,
    The flat unraised spirits that have dared
    On this unworthy scaffold to bring forth
    So great an object: can this cockpit hold
    The vasty fields of France? or may we cram
    Within this wooden O the very casques
    That did affright the air at Agincourt?
    O, pardon! since a crooked figure may
    Attest in little place a million;
    And let us, ciphers to this great accompt,
    On your imaginary forces work.
    Suppose within the girdle of these walls
    Are now confined two mighty monarchies,
    Whose high upreared and abutting fronts
    The perilous narrow ocean parts asunder:
    Piece out our imperfections with your thoughts;
    Into a thousand parts divide on man,
    And make imaginary puissance;
    Think when we talk of horses, that you see them
    Printing their proud hoofs i’ the receiving earth;
    For ’tis your thoughts that now must deck our kings,
    Carry them here and there; jumping o’er times,
    Turning the accomplishment of many years
    Into an hour-glass…

    I think people love theatre that demands more of them- spiritually, creatively, emotionally, even physically.

    I know I do.

  2. as with all subjective concepts – different strokes for different folks. that being said, Praxis was forced into minimalist sets by budgetary constraints when we started and now we’re just into it. it puts increased emphasis on the human element, which is just fine by us.

    on the other hand, if we could get the guy who did the sets for the movie “Hero” I’d be all for it.

  3. I saw a big-budg production of Sunset Boulevard here ages ago (a play the local wags termed some set Boulevard) and indeed the detail on the set was overwhelming; dense, rich and with about a million nic-nacs, not to mention that Nora’s entire living room flew so that the squalid apartment across town could slide in underneath for the party.

    I spent two hours marveling at the set and don’t remember a single thing from the play itself.

  4. I have a great respect for spectacle. It’s probably the main reason – aside from the beautiful music – that I attend the opera. I love the glorious sets that stretch high into the tops of the auditorium, the buildings with balconies and vines running down the walls. Such a treat for the eyes. For me, great theatre is all about integrating all the elements (acting, set, costumes, lighting) to create a cohesive, aesthetically-pleasing whole.

    But just as I cringe at gratuitous nudity in films, I really dislike gratuitous spectacle in theatre. If you’re going to have an amazing set, make sure you can back it up a superb script and talented actors. Heavy spectacle is no replacement for a weak production, and it should enhance rather than detract from the play.

    If the script calls for a zillion props and detailed stage design (like Dry Lips Outta Move to Kapuskasing, which, in its full glory, couldn’t be done without), go for it and make it work. Otherwise, let the play speak for itself.

  5. Just wanted to agree wholeheartedly about Goodness. It was one of the most thought provoking, downright beautiful pieces of theatre I’ve ever seen, and I haven’t been able to stop talking about it since. In fact, I’ll be clutching it tightly to my chest as a salve for all the terrible theatre I’ve seen and will no doubt continue to see.

    Thanks for speaking today at Mag North’s compass points conference. It was a great conversation and sparked lots of thoughts for me–a friend and fellow emerging artist and I spent some time afterwards talking critically about our own projects, and picking apart our own responses to criticism. You’re right, we need thicker skins in our community, and maybe a slightly greater willingness to push each other, and compete for those valuable bums not just in our flashy and unique marketing, but in our content, in everything we do. Bad theatre is bad for all of us, right?

    I’d love to see Vancouver’s independent theatre scene be a little braver about criticizing each other. We all have to stop living in our own little bubbles of preciousness if we want our art to get better and better. I know it’s only in an ideal world that everyone can see everything, but I’d love to hear the members of the Progress Lab commenting on some of the other theatre in our city.

  6. Thanks Courtney, today was an enormous amount of fun, thanks for coming. I really felt like I was in a room full of the future of my craft and I’ve been buzzing about it all day.

    We have to be a little more out about our honest feelings about the work we see and do, there’s no doubt. Debate is much better than no talk at all.

    Speaking of which, you’re a very good writer, ever thought about theatre blogging?

  7. Laff, guess I deserved that! All my talk of needing dialogue, and yet most of the time I am definitely a “lurker”. But maybe…just maybe… I often find words are unwieldy things when it comes to expressing my thoughts but they’re certainly a start.

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