The STM, but I've said too much already
6 August 2012, 4:24 PM
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,