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Staging An Idea

ART TIMES Nov 2003

Directors like to come up with ideas about a play. We like to talk about "my vision of the play." Very often, "my vision of the play" includes ideas about the meaning of the play. Plays, any one play can have all sorts of meanings for different people, and the meanings that a director finds in a play will have their effect on what the director does with the production.

However, this can lead to a very real problem. There are many kinds of ideas one can have about a play, but there are only a few kinds of ideas that can actually be expressed on stage. You can ruin a play very effectively for the audience by insisting on trying to communicate ideas that just aren’t very communicable by theatrical means.

Ultimately, as we all know, a play presents an action – a sequence of responses by a character or characters to what they experience. We communicate the nature of the action by words, movement, expression and so forth. That’s the kind of meaning we can convey in the theater.

What we cannot convey in the theater is what the action means. We can try; we can offer up all sorts of commentary upon it; we can influence how audiences perceive the action in any number of ways – color, tempo, rhythm, sound, and so forth. We can make the commentary very literal by surrounding the action with words, images, and so forth. However, when we do that, at a certain point, we start to cheat. We start trying to push the audience into one kind of response or another. We cross the line from offering a communication to imposing a demand.

A case in point: I’ve been thinking lately about the staging of Sophocles’ Antigone. I indulge myself in the conceit of making Creon look exactly like John Ashcroft. That’s certainly well within the realm of theatrical possibility; it might dictate a modern-dress design concept, but that’s not exactly a sin these days. But what if I not only make the man look just like John Ashcroft, but I also get my actor to be as arrogant, overbearing and contemptuous of all around and as he can – and as a superficial reading of the text might suggest he should be?

The consequences of that are pretty severe. I’ve basically gone to my audience and informed them, "This is what you will think about this character. We are not interested in trying to convey anything about this character that might conflict with what we want you to think." We are no longer in the business of understanding and conveying the nature of an action; we are now in the business of dictating a meaning.

That’s not fair. It’s not fair to ourselves, because we have blinded ourselves; we’ve closed ourselves off from the real richness of the play, from the full range of possible significance to be found in the action. It’s not fair to our audience either; we’ve thinned out their experience, reduced the richness of what they can have in our work. We ought to be selling our tickets at 50% off, because we’re only delivering 50% of what we should.

We need to get back to the action. Sure, the man can look like John Ashcroft. It would make a very telling point if he did. But what would really make the play rich would be if in the course of fully exploring the action, we come to understand just how and why Creon is Creon, how we, in his shoes, might well do as he does, that there but for the grace of the gods go we. In like manner, we might make Antigone look just like Jane Fonda, and we might learn the same thing about her. That is what will change us and lead us to the full experience of what Antigone has to offer – when we see two rights in conflict, not a right versus a wrong.

So have your ideas about the play, directors – but make them ideas about an action, not dictates to an audience.

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