Utopian Turtletop. Monsieur Croche's Bête Noire. Contact: turtletop [at] hotmail [dot] com

Tuesday, January 04, 2005


My friend the playwright and Chicago theater critic Kerry Reid weighs in on the theater-film question. We pick her up mid-(e)-conversation:

“Yeah. I mean, people have been declaring theater a dead form for a long time, but somehow a lot of us still like it. I think about beautiful moments like Mary Zimmerman's "Journey to the West," where the action on stage stopped for several moments when the Buddhist monk asked that we all silently reflect on those lost along the journey. That would never happen in film, and if it did, I doubt it would have the kind of communal impact it did when I saw the show. And of course, how do we account for improv and other forms of theater that are dependent on some extent or another to the audience as literal participants? Do they not count as "theater”? If we're talking the living-room-drama-in-a-box, he may have an argument about the superiority of film -- but I saw a blistering and heartbreaking production of "I Never Sang For My Father" at Steppenwolf last summer with John Mahoney and Kevin Anderson that was transcendent in ways that a film could never be -- and this is a script that, prior to that production, I would have snottily dismissed as a tired relic of mid-century American psychological realism, which films are now supposed to do so much better than theater.”

Thank you, Kerry, for beautiful examples of un-filmic strengths of the theater.

A couple thoughts. In my original post, I questioned the validity of drawing-room drama on the stage. Then I thought of two exceptions, one specific and one general. The specific, like Kerry’s involved John Mahoney in a Steppenwolf production; it was “Born Yesterday” in the late ‘80s or early ‘90s. Mohoney was great, but the moment that blew me away was courtesy of Robert Breuler as the scrap metal king’s attorney, the line late in the show when he says that he thought the scrap metal king’s nemesis was “kind of cute.” In the terrific movie, the line is 1950 tough guy; Breuler heartbreakingly revealed his rather minor character to be a deeply unhappy, alcoholic, closeted gay man.

In general, drawing room drama is fine on the stage as long as the theater isn’t much bigger than a drawing room. Steppenwolf’s at that time wasn’t. Most “community” theaters are intimate. I do have a problem with our large “regional” theaters putting on drawing room dramas. Even up close, it doesn’t work, because the actors have to play to the back rows. Doesn’t fit. I’d rather see mediocre amateur actors in a small theater than wonderful actors in a large theater if it’s a chamber drama, just as I’d rather hear amateur musicians in a small auditorium rather than top famous musicians in a very large one if they’re playing chamber music.

My final point, underlined, to our friend ACD is that a play or a movie can’t be reduced to a “text.” In his self-professed focus on aesthetics, he leaves out essential aesthetic facts of theater and film -- the visual and aural. Marcus Maroney and I have posted on visual strengths of theater not available to film. Aural strengths specific to the theater are suggested in a post of George Hunka’s, wherein he quotes a post by Alex Ross on the phenomenology of recording and how it differs from live music.

Back in April, I posted on how sound recording creates a fictional acoustical space which is then projected into another space when the listener plays it back. And this may pertain as to why farce tends to work better on stage rather than in film.

Examples I’m thinking of both have to do with pieces originally written for the stage that were then adapted for film, and which I later saw onstage at a terrific rural summer stock theater not far from my family’s ancestral summer cottage in southwest Michigan, the Barn Theatre in the tiny town of Augusta. The best example is Michael Frayn’s hilarious farce Noises Off. It’s a door-slamming-style backstage farce that depends on quick and adept timing. The first act is the dress rehearsal of a play. The second act takes place backstage during a run, when various cast and crew members find out they’ve been cheating on each other and attempt to silently injure each other -- silently, because they’re backstage and don’t want to interrupt the play frontstage. The third act is later in the run of the play, when everything is falling apart. The first time I read it, I laughed so hard I fell out of my futon.

When I saw it at the Barn 5 or 6 years ago or so, it was so funny that my elderly, almost-blind friends who were at the same performance were disappointed that the crowd laughed so much in the second act that they couldn’t hear any of the dialogue. There is almost no dialogue in the second act, but my friends couldn’t see the action; laughter would have covered any dialogue if there had been any. Then I saw the film, and it’s just not that funny (though some people liked it).

Why did I not find the film funny? Well, one of the things that’s funny in a door-slamming farce is the slamming of doors. The slamming of a door is a complex sound, and film is extremely hard-pressed to do it justice. Sound recording creates the reproduction of an acoustical space and projects it into another. The “presence” is off, no matter how skilled the practitioner. The second thing about door-slamming farce -- and this is back to the visual strength of theater -- is that there’s always more than one door to slam, and they’re arrayed across the stage. When a door on stage left slams just before a door on stage right, the whipping of the audience’s attention from one side to the other contributes to the hilarity. This effect is un-reproducable onscreen.

One last thing. Just because ACD acknowledges that I’m answering his question on his own terms doesn’t mean I think his terms are valid. Speaking as a musican and a former actor, everybody who’s talked about the sensual and aesthetic richness of the live presentation, and the give-and-take between audience and performer, has been right on. However, I thank ACD for his question -- what are strengths available to theater that film can’t match? -- and I pity him for turning himself away from the answers.

Thanks, John! I should point out to your readers that the links both go to the EXIT Theatre website in San Francisco. I reviewed at the EXIT for Back Stage West and other Bay Area pubs, but had stopped reviewing in San Francisco long before I wrote solo plays (two and counting) for their divine artistic director, Christina Augello. Just in case any ethics watchdogs are ready to pounce.

I reviewed a terrific production of "Noises Off" last spring. How do I know it was terrific? Because my cat had died after a long illness the day before, and I still laughed my ass off. Or maybe that's why I laughed my ass off (aha!). At any rate, I'm glad it wasn't "Cats" -- if I had been impelled by emotional spillover to give Lloyd Webber's kitty litter a glowing review, I think my credentials would be in question.

Also interesting to see your post upstream about TSE. I'm reading "Painted Shadow" right now -- a rather laborious and speculative biography of Viv Eliot. Will send you my thoughts whenever I finish it.

One final thought on "I Never Sang For My Father" and the visual context of theater: the director, Anna Shapiro, used these gorgeous projections (many from the collection of her own late father, a photographer and stock-company owner) that created their own allusive associations with the play without directly illustrating or bludgeoning the emotional cues (some were still lifes of household or kitchen implements, some were just backyard landscapes devoid of people, etc). I think that helped make the piece play better to the back rows at Steppenwolf, and it also underscored that this is a memory play -- and memory can never be contained within the four walls of a living room (she didn't use a living room set -- just a few pieces of furniture that slid on and off).

I think the same device could have been attempted in film, but as you've pointed out, the visual tonalities of film and theater are often so different that I doubt it would have worked.
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