One of the things I love most about London is the opportunity to see so much great theatre for relatively low prices (especially if one makes use of the tkts booth in Leicester Square). Between my two trips this year, I was lucky enough to 8 plays and two musicals.
(If you’re curious as to what those were: The Mousetrap, La Bête, The Woman in Black [twice], Les Misérables, Deathtrap, The Phantom of the Opera, The 39 Steps, and Birdsong [twice].)
What I’ve discovered is I tend to like the smaller, character-driven shows much more than those that rely on costume- or set-driven spectacle more than story. Seeing the chandelier swinging perilously above the stage during Phantom is certainly awe-inspiring, but it doesn’t make me think like the debate of art vs. entertainment in La Bête, and it doesn’t chill me like the rocking chair in The Woman in Black, and it doesn’t break my heart like Stephen Wraysford does in Birdsong.
The exception to this rule for me, I think, is Wicked, which I’ve been able to see twice here in Kansas City, and which relies on an amazing set, an epic story, but doesn’t neglect to give the audience a character in which to invest fully. Les Misérables comes close for me, especially with Éponine, but there’s so much going on, and our loyalties are spread across so many different characters, that it’s hard to fully invest in any one character.
Beyond these elements, one thing that utterly fascinates me about theatre is that no performance, especially in the smaller, character-driven plays, is ever the same. The energy the audience brings to the theatre can change everything. I consider myself lucky for having the opportunity to see Birdsong the second time when four actors were out sick, including Lee Ross, who plays probably the second most important role in the second and third acts. (And yes, I feel bad for saying I’m lucky that four poor people were under the weather, and I hope they recovered very quickly and were able to return to their roles refreshed and invigorated, etc., etc.)
What this afforded me was the opportunity to see the same scenes, delivered with the same lines (or close enough that I couldn’t pinpoint a difference), play in entirely different ways. With a play as emotionally complex as Birdsong, you get different reactions from different audiences to certain scenes anyway. What strikes one group of people as funny strikes another as awkward. What makes one audience swoon makes another snicker a little. And in the same audience, you have people familiar with the novel on which the play is based who have more context for what’s happening on stage, which also affects their perception of what the actors are doing.
Mild spoilers follow.
One scene in particular, in which the only two characters on stage are Stephen Wraysford, played by Ben Barnes, and Jack Firebrace, played in the first performance by Lee Ross and in the second by understudy Billy Carter, drove home the malleability of theatre. The scene takes place as the men are trapped in a tunnel forty feet below the ground, with no supplies, limited air supply, and no hope to get out.
In the first performance, the scene was extremely tense with no let-up, either for the actors or the audience. In the second performance, whether it was something brought by the audience or supplied by Mr. Carter, the delivery of a line sparked laughter from the audience. Mr. Barnes then altered his performance in a small ways to play within the energy of the scene, as created on that specific night. Both versions of the scene worked extremely well, and it was utterly fascinating to watch the collaboration between actors and audience (and even just between actors). I’m incredibly grateful to have seen it.
I’m still trying to work out what exactly this means for me as a writer. Is there a lesson to be taken? I imagine the thought of a scene playing in entirely different ways — and thus perhaps quite differently than originally conceived — might horrify some writers. Personally, I find it exhilarating to know that there’s life yet to be imagined from lines once they’re set on a page. I was able to experience the phenomenon in the tiniest of ways whilst filming LiaE (see No. 4 here), and it was perhaps one of the most exciting parts of the directing experience.
As for the act of writing itself, perhaps the lesson to be taken is that there is a benefit in imagining scenes on the page interpreted in different ways. In prose, this can help the writer modify passages to make them less emotionally ambiguous. In screenwriting and playwriting, doing so might benefit the story by revealing opportunities to inject a little something you hadn’t realized was there in the first place.
The main point I know I can take away is how much I love the unique beast that is theatre. There’s no other medium that allows for such synergy of elements delivered by story, actors and audience. I’m hoping to experience it more fully in 2012, both in front of and behind the curtain.