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The STM, but I've said too much already

Your Humble Blogger has been reading a lot of plays, lately. Quite a few good ones, some not so much. Now that I have become associated with some community theaters, I wind up reading plays with an eye toward the possibility of staging them locally—I have always read plays looking for parts for myself, but mostly as idle interest rather than as part of a nefarious plan to actually get the thing put on. Now, though, I wind up thinking quite specifically about production difficulties in the local spaces. Which has led me to identify what I call subsidized theater moments—bits in the playscript that turn what appeared to be a relatively affordable production into an unimaginably expensive and difficult one.

The most obvious example, really, is from Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van, an extraordinary work about Mr. Bennett himself and the more-or-less crazy woman who lived in a broken-down van on his street (and eventually in his front yard). The style is non-naturalistic and the set is or can be minimal (a few chairs, a table with a typewriter, that sort of thing), until the Van in question is driven onto the stage at the end of Act One. It must be a tremendous theater moment for the audience, and one that cannot be replicated at a converted shoe store that seats forty people. Of course, one could find a way around that—I was at a performance of Angels in America: Millennium Approaches in a black box that succeeded with no fly space whatsoever—but it would be something missing. And that’s before the truly moving climax of the show, which requires that the van be lifted up into the flies. This isn’t, in my opinion, gratuitous spectacle, but is (and is discussed as, because it’s a very, very meta play) necessary spectacle, spectacle without which the play would be incomplete. And it’s very expensive spectacle. Perhaps less so if you already have a theater with the required wings and flies, but then, that theater is very expensive, too.

A different Subsidized Theater Moment came at the end of the first act of David Edgar’s Pentecost. This is less obviously a matter of spectacle, though. The play has a single setting that could be quite easily done on the local community theater stage, and even the big noisy stuff could quite easily be accommodated without hurting the theatrical effect. No, instead of invading the stage with a working motor vehicle at the curtain of Act One, the invasion is of a dozen new characters, each native speakers of a different language. Greek, Arabic, Hungarian, Croatian, Farsi, whatever. Pentecost, right? And it’s a tremendous moment, completely jarring, the audience totally disoriented, spends the interval going what just happened there and we come back and spend Act Two with these really interesting characters attempting to communicate with each other and with our Act One characters. I don’t quite know how it works as a play, but it’s really interesting. And really expensive. Going in one moment from a seven- or eight-actor play to a twenty-actor play? And most of those actors have to be able to sound fluent in a particular language? Costs money. Not just in the actors’ pay, which Lord knows isn’t spectacular, but in the whole process of casting, finding the people who can play those parts and play them well. The cheapest way, presumably is to have a Very Famous Theater that every student at every drama school in the country has always dreamed about working for. If you have neglected to acquire the decades of subsidy for that, well, there are other ways, but they aren’t cheap.

This is, by the way, different in feel (to my feel, anyway) to the plays of the twenties and thirties, when labor was cheap and casts were naturally large. A drawing-room comedy might have two maids, a butler and a footman with three lines each, mostly providing atmosphere. Costumes were cheaper too, I suppose. Anyway, a modern shoestring-budgeted theater can collapse those into two characters, or one, or write them out altogether. And, frankly, the big casts of the early-mid-twentieth century often do require subsidized theater to put on—I recently read The Quare Fellow by Brendan Behan, and it’s marvelous, but there are something like twenty-seven characters, all of them men. The physical problems (several cells with doors, people dig a grave on stage) are easily solved, but the cast? Not gonna happen. Not even at a drama school, which counts as subsidized theater as far as I’m concerned, are they going to put on a play with two dozen men and no women. Unless they do The Women in rep as a kind of experiment in segregation, I suppose.

But what really made the Pentecost bit a Subsidized Theater Moment for me was not just that you would have to find all of those actors with those specific language skills, but that you would find them and then leave them in the green room for forty-nine minutes. I have been writing, again, for the stage. The eight characters all have substantial parts—some bigger than others, some with more laughs or more dimensions, but everybody comes in and out, in and out, and everybody has at least one good long scene in the first act. There were nine characters, but it turned out (at least so far) that one of them wasn’t absolutely necessary. I couldn’t countenance having to cast an actor and put him through rehearsals and then have him sit in the green room most of the night just for the sake of a few jokes, so I cut him out entirely. I don’t think it’s fair to make the audience keep track of a ninth character, either; audiences are capable of keeping track of large casts, but as with everything there is a cost, and the cost should only be incurred with an eye to a sufficiently large payoff.

On the other hand, I am considering writing in a bit where a part of the set is utterly destroyed, which could be a Subsidized Theater Moment indeed—not unlike Jed’s suggestion, which come to think of it, is a Subsized Theater Moment itself, if only for the cost of the ASM’s therapy.

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,
-Vardibidian.

Comments

I saw Pentecost back in 1995 at the Yale Repertory Theater. (May have been its American premiere or may not have been. I remember it as being so, but a quick scan of the program doesn't turn up that information.) Anyway, I found it to be a very powerful play in performance--some lines and moments remain directly in my memory, 17 years after seeing the play a single time. The Subsidized Theater Moment you described was subsidized, in this case, by giving a half dozen parts in the play to School of Drama students. Not necessarily the parts that begin midway through the play, but other parts within their ranges. And it is a place where top performers (among them YSD alumni/ae) will want to act. Also useful, probably, to be performing a play like this in a theater within reach of a multinational city like New York or London. And to have a director/artistic director with artistic connections in Eastern Europe. All of which were the case here. I remember it as one of the best plays I saw in seven years of attending the Yale Rep.


The NYT says that it was the American premiere. Alvin Klein talks about how such a production could not have happened on Broadway or off-Broadway, but only in our vital regional theater. I must say, I think of the Yale Rep as very much Subsidized Theater, in those days at least, with a combination of Ford Foundation and other grants, YSD support and the probably deserved reputation it has among professionals. I have a sense that it is somewhat less the case now, but then I suppose you could argue that the National and the RSC and are somewhat less the case now as well.

Anyway, I would love to chat with you about the production--as you can imagine, it's a difficult play to read. David Edgar is a very brainy playwright, and he is interested in a lot of things I am interested in (religion, storytelling, English history, ritual). I find his stuff... challenging. Anyway, any comments or stories you have would be much appreciated. I see that there's a video in the Yale collection, but I don't have access to it.

Also, if anybody has seen a production of Lady in the Van. Or The Quare Fellow, for that matter.

Thanks,
-V.


A couple of thoughts:

1. It seems like a lot of STMs can be worked around. For example, I would imagine that it would be possible to make a flat van facade out of wood or muslin and roll or slide it onstage. (But I know nothing about that play--is it essential that the van be a real van?) And I have a vague idea that there are high school productions of, say, Cats or Phantom that get by without the gigantic spectacle sets and falling chandeliers and such.

2. Looking at the casting part of this from a slightly different angle, I always wonder about how theatres handle it when there's a character who only appears briefly. I saw Les Miz last night; I'm guessing that the guy who plays the Bishop comes back onstage later as a minor character for crowd scenes (or does he just have his one scene at the beginning and then sit around for hours until the curtain call?), but what about the young actresses who play Young Cosette and Young Eponine? I don't think there are other little girls for them to play later (well, there was one during "Turning," so maybe that was one of them); what do they do for the hours when they're not onstage?

The most prominent example that comes to mind is Young Fiona and Teen Fiona in the Shrek musical. I haven't seen the show, so I have no idea whether they show up again later, but I get the impression that they just come onstage for "I Know It's Today" (and I love both the song and the way it's done, in the YouTube versions I've seen), and then never again. They presumably have to be good actresses and singers to carry that quasi-solo song, but what do the actresses do for the rest of the show?


what do the actresses do for the rest of the show?
Angry Birds.

Actually, it happens fairly often that the actor spends an hour or more at a time backstage. I don't actually know Les Miz, but it's possible that there was a deliberate choice to allow the child actors to lie down at nine-thirty, to be woken at eleven for their curtain call. I know a fellow who was in an Equity show with half-a-dozen lines in the first scene of a three-act play, and who was allowed by the Stage Manager to take off his costume and makeup and leave the theater, coming back two and a half hours later to put his costume on and take his bow (without makeup). From a community theater actor's point of view, it's not so unpleasant hanging around with the gang, perhaps playing cards or reading or chatting. And it's not actually more expensive to have fifteen unpaid actors than fiveā€”it's more cost-effective, as that's more family to come see. Of course, casting the fifteenth best actor at the audition may be unfortunate for those in the audience that are not his blood relations, but there it is.

Thanks,
-V.


In the right setting, an actor with a really brief role might even be in another play at the same time. As I recall, there were a few actors at the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in the '80's who were playing a minor part in one play (starting at 8:00 in the big indoor theater), and a rather more major part in another play (likewise starting at 8:00, in the big outdoor theater across the way).

It must have been an interesting challenge for the actors, directors, costumers, and makeup people, but the audience probably never noticed.


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