I have seen many different approaches to theater in my limited time spent working in the Milwaukee “scene” (as it were). The (probably obvious) conclusion to which I have some is that taste in theater is highly subjective; that is, just like in any art, aesthetic sometimes wins out over art, whatever that is.
I recognize that I am not saying anything of great novelty and perhaps adding nothing to the argument of “what is art?” But, I would like to answer the question for myself here in some rambling thoughts, in the spirit of my new “things I thought of” journaling.
I have been in two productions of Shakespeare at the same theater spaced about a year apart. Not surprisingly, they each had strong points and weak ones, but in my opinion, they both ended up lacking in some way. Theatrically speaking, one was heavy on visual, and the other heavy on “acting.” Again, I have to use quotes here, because what acting is varies from person to person and place to place. I use the quotes to indicate that I am using my personal definition. And neither do I think either of these productions excels the other, only that my critical brain always wants to find ways to do things better, which tends to mean I find weaknesses more easily than strengths.
Please, dear reader, place that grain of salt squarely on your tongue and simply read for the opinion of one person making only educated observations and not attempting to pass judgment. I am proud of both productions, but as a burgeoning theater professional, it is my duty to assert what in theater appeals to me most.
All provisos now accounted for, Shakespeare is of particular interest to me. Having a strong background in literature, it comes as no surprise that I can be highly critical of productions of his work and the language to me is the pinnacle of that work. So, when I say that one production focused on the visual and one on the acting, I mean that neither focused enough on the language. Many actors I have met, including me, must make extensive study of their lines in order to fully understand their character’s speeches, and then must adapt those speeches to their own tongues in order to make it plain for the audience. I think all of them know this is true. This does not stop them, however, from forgetting to make this study a priority; whether through preoccupation (understandably, all of us have to work some other job as well), through laziness, through embarrassment, or through ego (“I get it well enough and I can cover with acting tricks”), the actor makes some sort of excuse against doing their homework.
Again, no judgment. Not yet. I was greeted on my exit from one of these productions with this enthusiastic, yet unenviable praise from a patron: “That was incredible! The acting was outstanding! I did not follow any of it.” I graciously accepted this with some small commiseration and large words of thanks, but internally I lamented that we as a troupe had failed to do our jobs. Some actors, particularly when tackling Shakespeare, complain that the audiences simply should study more, that their ignorance prevents their understanding. What rot! If an actor mumbled his or her lines, or failed to convey proper emotion in a show with more accessible language, it would never occur to an audience member that he or she was to blame for not understanding. It is our job as theater artists to create something that moves people to catharsis, and language is the key tool for that.
Recently, I explored the idea that theater encompasses all of the other major art forms (visual art, literature, music, performance art, etc.) and that this macrocosmic view accounts for my enthrallment. I stand by this assertion, but have realized my distaste for productions that skimp on any one part of them. A conscious decision to create a void in one area can provoke that aesthetic response that I crave, but to leave something out due to laziness (because a lack of creative solutions stems most often from this) signals to me either incompetence or ambivalence, which robs a production of its soul.
While fight directing for my most recent show, I commented that a solid knap, the sound used in stage combat to simulate real contact, can cover all manner of flaws in technique. Much like the distracting hands of an illusionist, the audience’s attention focuses on the diversion and momentarily finds themselves unable to see the trick. Most theater falls under this heading. But, just as a wonderful magician can create a sense of wonder, a bad one makes us cringe and can ruin future illusions for some time.
Like most things in life, success lies in the balance. Too far in any one direction makes the whole experiment fall apart. In my case, both productions received praise, which means the audience was indeed “fooled,” but I think even moderately good theater should do more than “fool”; it should enchant.
The more visual production stood out in people’s minds for making beautiful, memorable stage pictures, but failed to communicate the greater meaning of the adaptation. The experiment in revision sparked my imagination to explore the play in a new way, but the impression I got from audiences spoke more of spectacle than of catharsis. Rather than showing the potential of the adaptation, it distracted further from the already difficult language and failed to reach the audience at the literary level, though it succeeded at the aesthetic.
Contrarily, the more “acted” production left too much in the hands of the actors and audience to generate on their own. Its sparse setting and stagecraft — though the audience remained subconsciously aware of this at best — forced its viewers to fill in too many of their own details and the actors to create a visual experience which drained some of the life and impact from the language.
I step back from calling these productions failures, as audiences still enjoyed them, no doubt conversed about them, and took at least something home with them for the price of admission. What grives me is the lost potential. Like a jigsaw puzzle missing pieces, the human mind reconstructs those parts it lacks and perhaps does not want for more. A good production, however, should more resemble a good novel: it is complete, and the questions it asks one are not of what is missing, but what impressions remain in the mind left to explore and expand upon.