Monday, October 1, 2007

Stage, Screen, TV, or Campfire??

Whew!! That "Narrative vs Theatrical" thread was really going on, wasn't it? Well, in an effort to not have to scroll down so much- I'm continuing it as a new thread...

David wrote:

Take the Anne Frank story, for example. The particulars of the story are fairly straightforward and commonly known. The elements of that story, as they have been translated by later writers, remain the same... yet the Anne Frank story has successfully made its way into print, onto the stage and on film. The successes of these various versions of her story have not depended on the story itself, but on whether or not the writer, director or adaptor took full advantage of the medium through which they chose to tell that story.

I agree with this Anne Frank analogy, David. And it kind of proves my point. Anne Frank was adapted for every medium. As a book, it had liberties with detail, etc. As a play, it was made theatrical in some way and adapted for the stage. Same with film.

So my question still is this: Why was "A Steady Rain" a play? Why was it important for that story to be told on a stage? I think this question is intrinsically tied back to the original, "What is theatricality?" question.

(Folks who have not seen "A Steady Rain" don't worry, because I'm still posing the general question- What makes a play worthy of the stage? Why does a piece of work HAVE to be presented on the stage versus another medium??)

As a film, "A Steady Rain" WOULD be filmed in a Spaulding Gray type of way- the play would essentially be taped. Around a campfire, it would be presented the same way as was presented on the stage at Chicago Dramatists. At a bar, the same thing.

My point being, "A Steady Rain" could be presented in many locations and mediums and not really change it's form. So what made it theatrical? Why did it HAVE to be presented on a stage, besides the fact that Keith wrote it in a playscript format...?

And if a narrative is NOT theatrical, should it be presented on a stage...?


Devilvet said...

I'm having a problem discerning between should and shouldn't when it comes to what to stage and how that ends up being anything other than merely an example of personal taste coupled with production budget realities, etc.

Are we talking about what today's playwrights "should" be writing or are we talking about what today's theatrecompanies and producers "should" be producing?

David said...

Hi Chris,

I have a hard time answering your questions, as you've posed them, primarily because it seems that we approach theater from different perspectives.

For example, you use terms such as "must," "have to" and "worthy" to describe theater (as a discipline) and the plays that are presented in them (theater as a venue).

That gives me the impression -- correctly or incorrectly -- that you feel that theater is 1) a necessary form of story presentation and 2) that there are certain rules that define what plays should and should not be.

Whether or not I'm correct in what I've just written, I can say for sure that I believe 1) that theater -- especially in our "modern" world, with the various forms of communication available to us -- is not a necessity, but is, rather, a luxury; and 2) that while there are guidelines for what works on stage -- much of the time for many of the people -- any such guidelines are flexible and made to be broken.

It's a bit like Generally Accepted Accounting Principles in business... the rules are agreed upon because they make life and communication easier in the business world, but they are mutable. In fiction, James Joyce is a perfect example: His writing broke all the rules, but it worked. (Sadly, not so well for his many imitators.) On the other hand, there are many other novelists who do follow the "rules," and their stories are also successful.

Which leads me to answer your questions as such:

"Why did [A Steady Rain] HAVE to be presented on a stage, besides the fact that Keith wrote it in a playscript format...?"

My response: Nothing. Because I don't think any story must be presented on a stage (or in a novel or on film or on TV). Keith simply chose that means of presentation.

"What makes a play worthy of the stage?"

My response: Nothing, intrinsically, makes a play worthy of the stage. That is a relativistic decision/judgment made by both the playwright and the audience. The playwright decides what s/he will present on stage, and considers it worthy of such. The audience decides whether or not they like it. If they like it, they buy tickets. If they don't like it, they stay home. If most people like it, it's called "good."

Now, chances are, most people wouldn't enjoy hearing me read my shopping list onstage. But there's also the possibility -- given the right circumstances -- that people would love it. The "play" is no different in either situation, merely the responses to it.

So, with that in mind, I can't say what makes one play more worthy of being presented in the theater than another. All I can say is that I have personal preferences... and my tastes are extraordinarily catholic.

Aaron Carter said...

David et al,

I read the "have" in Chris' comments completely differently. I don't see a value judgement built into his terminology.

There are different forms of art, and each has its strengths. While those lines may blur, and forms blend together, people generally discern between a novel and a play, between a play and a film, etc.

If you assume that each form has its strengths, then it follows that some forms are better suited to certain tasks.

I have some stories that I'd rather tell as a 13 episode television series than as a stage play. And I have my reaons why.

So when I read Chris asking why something "has" to be a play, I read: what inherent strengths of the form is the author purposefully exploiting?

Am I wrong here?

David said...

Aaron, that silence you hear is the sound of me thinking.

So far, for every statement or example I've come up with in response to your final question --

"What inherent strengths of the form [theater -- my insertion] is the author purposefully exploiting?"

-- I've quickly come up with a counter-statement, or counter-example. And in all that arguing with myself, the only thing that seems to hold up is the quality of "liveness" (both real-time and physical proximity, between actor and audience and within the audience) that I came up with earlier. (And which was discounted by other posters, quite rapidly.)

But, as of 2 p.m. today, that is still all I can come up with: That theater is at its best -- as compared to other forms of storytelling -- when it takes full advantage of the fact that real human beings are gathered into one physical space, at one time, to witness/participate in the shared telling of a story through performance.

At the moment, and speaking only for myself, all else (production values, acting techniques, script, plot, etc.) is informed by that "reality." Conversely, all of the elements work together to create that reality.

And then the rules start to break down... again, because a performance is a live, unfixable thing. Even in the preparation for that moment, the variables are many and far less controlled than in other forms of storytelling.

And I'm rambling... Are there more specific, concrete theories of what makes theater and what doesn't, floating beneath my consciousness today?

Probably. But I'm not sure how much access I have to them... or, if they do exist, whether they'll amount to much more than intuitive approximations of more detailed, highly analyzed theories of theater that have already been put forth by better thinkers than me.

That's not meant to be a cop-out, by the way. Just sort of a statement of where I am, today.

Tony said...

I haven't seen (or read) Keith's piece, so I can't speak specifically about it.

I don't think narritive has to be anti-theatrical. Many forms of narrative are not (and well, boring on stage,) but that doesn't mean that narrative can never be effective on stage.

Dialogue, show don't tell, and most of our ideas of form are concepts that came in well after monologue. Acting followed long after it was just a person (or people) simply telling the audience a story. Which if the story is good enough and the storytellier is good enough still works.

For me the ultimate test of if a form is right for a stage is if it works, which from what I hear A Steady Rain does very well. So to steal a phrase from another field, to some extent form follows function.

Devilvet said...

David's Liveness is not to be discounted. But I would instead amplify it with the idea of being alive in a community.

I'm affiliated with the Soiree Dada happening at the Cultural Center. And for me, that piece of theater has to be done in front of an audience so that they can react and see how their reaction affects the performers and the other audience members as well. The reverberation of multiple bodies forming even a temporary community is something to consider as a element (sp?) making theatre different from film or tv.

Greg McCain said...

Aaron, you are exactly right. As a playwright it is contingent on me to understand my craft and create for that medium so that its strengths facilitate the communication of my ideas. Of course in our culture it has become more and more a writers proving ground to write Hollywood style entertainments. Nothing wrong with entertainment, but after a while we end up with what we have in these postings, a confusion around terminology and the fundamentals of the craft.

The bottomline of what should or shouldn't be staged, of course, is up to whoever decides to produce for the stage. But, in the long run it does a diservice to the craft when the Theater is glutted with sitcoms and Hollywood formulaic dramas. People begin to believe that theater is an actor driven medium and simply a showcase for strong personalities and one liners or shallow sentimentality. The cathartic experience no longer exists to the point that younger playwrights and actors have no concept of what it is and develop the concept that Theater first and foremost is solely entertainment, thus a luxury. That's not to say that it shouldn't be entertaining, but it no longer becomes a venue for the audience to entertain human issues at that place in the psyche that this craft alone can access.

David, regarding your shopping list example. The idea that "given the right circumstances people would love it," Yes people may love hearing the list. I've seen poerty readings where the whole poem was nothing but a list and it was written and performed in a witty, clever way and it was a crowd pleaser, but it wasn't Theater, is was a performance. Nothing wrong with that, but let's not confuse the two different crafts. Unfortunatly this confusion happens on a constant basis in Chicago Theater to the detriment of the craft of Theater. We have the Second City style of performance replacing the craft of acting and writers conforming to that style. We have the TV generation, knowing only that craft's dimensions and trying to force those dimensions in the wrong venue. Do we have crowd pleasers (Second CIty. August Osage County), yes, but they add up to the alleviation of bordom, not catharsis. Catharsis is not a luxury, but a necessity, but in a consumerist society it is a nuisance because it gets people to stop and think about the ills of society whereas entertainment is a mere distraction and consumerist in nature. I like diversions, I like entertainment,I subscribe to Netfix, but I need the catharsis of live theater.

Tony said...

But theatre is an actor driven medium. Plays/scripts/texts are just words on a page, until an actor says them in front of an audience--only then can it become theatre. Actor-Audience.

Without actors, a play is not really any different than a short story or novel, even if it is a really great read. Great reading material doesn't make it theatre. Actors and audience does.

This doesn't discount the power of great writing (or the near painful boredom of seeing bad writing badly performed.)

Catharsis comes from the communal experience of an audience and actors sharing a great story, not just from the writing of it.

David said...

Guys, trust me, I agree with you on 95% of what is being said here. Especially since the subject matter under discussion grows exponentially with each post.

(What was the original question, anyway?)

Unfortunately, my own list of caveats, corrections and clarifications appears to be growing longer with each response ("Yes, I believe I should know my craft," "Yes, that craft involves/invokes the use of certain tools," "No, I have absolutely no interest in going to Hollywood," etc.), as are my questions to you ("If Theater -- with a capital T -- equals catharsis, then is it impossible to experience catharsis through any other medium?" "Can something be both entertaining and cathartic?" "Are we assuming that we're talking about absolutes, or is there some relativism in the terms we're using?" "What does this have to do with narrative?" etc.) This is, sadly, a side-effect of the medium of the blog -- conversations balloon very, very quickly, with a concurrent loss of comprehension and focus.

I speak only for myself. And the problem is, I could go on and on -- and probably would, unless I literally sat on my hands. So, while it may look like I'm taking my marbles and running, I'm going to... well, take my marbles and run. I seriously need to go do some playwriting. And explore -- in my art -- some of the very interesting questions that have been raised here.

My apologies for seeming rude... that's not the intent.

Greg McCain said...

Tony, Of course the Theater needs the actor to portray the action laid out in the script, but it is driven by the words and the forward moving action of those words, it is driven by the relationship created in the dialogue, by the journey that the playwright has wrought on the page. Yes it takes talented actors to study the scene and acurately portray the playwrights intent. How many of us have sat through great plays butchered by an actor who doesn't underdstand the craft of acting, a craft which has nothing to do with interpreting the script, but studying it and following the playwrights intent. I have yet to see a weak script saved by great acting. Yes, I have been entertained by great actors doing the best they can with what they got.

Tony you said, "Catharsis comes from the communal experience of an audience and actors sharing a great story, not just from the writing of it." I absolutely agree with this! It takes the total collaboration of all the artists involved for the cathartsis to happen. But the actor needs to follow the journey laid out in the script, As Mamet says the actors job is, "dont deny, don't invent", follow what the playwright set down, bring your humanity to the words and let the journey take care of itself. I think it was Aaron who said in another thread that an actor creating fixes for an inadequate script does a diservice to the writer. It may make the play more entertaining, but ultimately the audience leaves unfulfilled and like a junkie looking for the next fix seeks more mindless entertainment to feel fulfilled, never to find it. (Again, parapharsing Mamet).

David, to answer your questions: No; Yes: Yes: Everthing.
Every art form provides the possibility of catharsis.
It is essential that it be entertining in order to be cathartic, if your bored your not engaged. Now, what you find entertaining I may find boring and vice versa.
I think the difficulty has always existed in the relativity of the terms used. The collaborative aspect has people from different discplines, backgrounds, classes, cultures intermingling bringing with them their own world views,
Finally, this has everything to do with narrative, Theater exists in the words between people, Character-Character, Character-Audience and forward moving action in those words. The actor must have a complete understanding of his character's relationship with the other characters and with the audience, he must have an understanding of the journey that his character is taking if he is the protagonist, or the obstacle in the journey if the antagonist.

We can go back and forth with the chicken or the egg discussion. Who drives Theater, the playwright or the actor. Ultimately, Words drive it. It is the playwright who sets the course, maps the terrain and finds the destination. It is the actor who must follow that map or risk getting lost and taking the audience with them. (Of course a poorly drawn map gets all involved lost)

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