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Theatre: And the grass wouldn't go away

By Robert W. Bethune
ART TIMES Sept/ Oct 2012

I am fundamentally lazy and have been all my life. It plays out in a certain way: it makes me constantly search for easier and more efficient ways of doing things. For example, when personal computers capable of word processing first came out in the early 1980’s, I was on that baby like a fly on honey the moment I realized I would never have to retype a whole page in order to fix an error again. That, my friends, was a true moment of joy.

Despite doing theater for decades, one aspect of it still bothers my lazy soul: there’s such a horrible lot of stuff you have to do to make it happen that doesn’t actually contribute very much to the core experience. Stuff like scrabbling around looking for props, wasting day after day driving around and around and around. Endlessly building costumes and scenery, when you know that one of two things will happen to it: it will either get thrown away or it will get stuffed into storage and never seen again. Or worse: one of the most beautiful costumes I’ve ever had done for a show fell into the hands of some other people and got butchered to fit someone it was never meant to fit. On and on it goes, hour after hour of work that is necessary, but not fundamental, not a part of the core of the art.

And what is the core of the art? Actors and audience who share the same air. You don’t need a set for that. You don’t need a costume for that. You don’t need lighting for that, though I choke as I write those words, because I love lighting. You don’t need props, or makeup, or sound. You just need actors and an audience.

But wait. Is that true?

Let me tell you a story.

I saw a performance that came pretty close to filling my minimalist bill. It was Shakespeare, done in a tent with risers. (Yes, you do need a space of some kind, and one that keeps out the rain is better than one that doesn’t. One that allows people to see well is better than one that doesn’t.) They had costumes, which were very simple and generic, obviously made to be re-used. (Reusable is good. Capital expenditure is good; operational expenditure is bad.) They were even barefoot, which was kind of cute.

There was just one flaw. It was the grass.

The tent had been set up on some nice lawn, mowed but left a bit long. There was no stage, no platforming, no ground cloth, nothing that demarcated a playing space, just an empty area between the tent wall and the risers. An empty area of grass.

And the grass wouldn’t go away.

The acting wasn’t bad; it should have drawn me into the story. And the play wasn’t bad; Shakespeare’s pretty reliable that way. The whole thing met my criteria pretty well, except that damn grass wouldn’t go away. It wouldn’t fade into the background and just let the performance be. It had to keep seizing my attention, reminding me of something missing, getting between me and the unreality I came for.

That damned grass ruined the show.

They needed a stage. They needed a demarcation of the playing space that would say, in three dimensions, “here is our story space; here is where the unreality becomes reality. Look into our space, O partakers, and see what we have prepared.” It was as if a chef prepared a perfectly good roast and then served it on the ground without so much as a picnic blanket under it.
In other words, they cut too close to the bone. There is a level of fundamental work that cannot be reduced. In this case, in addition to lugging a tent and risers around, and lugging costumes around, they also needed to lug a stage around, and they hadn’t done so.

And so the grass wouldn’t go away.

Even the laziest, most efficiency-seeking artist must, in the end, get off his butt and do what has to be done. The trick is figuring out exactly what that is.

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