Today I’m going to head off of the beaten path. I’m going to try to talk about things that are completely without substance. The unseen, unknown, and the unmeasurable. I want to talk about the special energy that separates normal theatre from the theatre that is transcendent.
Everyone who has enjoyed theatre has a story about it. When the show just felt right. When it moved them. When it was powerful or electric or energizing. It is usually described as being beyond words. An experience felt as a connection between the stage and their own lives. But does that do us any good as theatre artists? Can we craft shows with that level of potential? What should we focus on in order to create theatre that has this unseen power?
That is what I would like to explore today. It is very murky territory, but I think that it is of the utmost importance to explore. I believe that somewhere in this territory lies the best of what live performance has to offer.So today I’m going to describe what it feels like when I see it, what qualities transcendent shows seem to share, and what happened the few times I stumbled into creating such a show. I don’t want to get too deep into creating this energy, that is a topic I think a person could spend a life time on. So I’ll just take the first step by attempting to describe what it is I’m talking about when I say transcendent, and why I think it is so important to seek this type of theatre out. So first, let’s see if I can describe the un-describable.
When I try and describe what the experience feels like my first sense is that the air feels warmer. It’s a feeling of tension that begins building in the air. An important thing to point out here is that the play suddenly seems louder, like the volume dial has been turned up. This happens because an experience like this tends to affect the entire audience, not just a few individuals, so everyone becomes quieter as they actively focus in on the show. As this tension builds the sights start to seem crisper, and there is compulsion to watch, absorb, and feel every moment that happens on stage. There is a sense of communion and shared experience with what is happening on stage, and those emotions feel like they are dialed up to a 10. Sad is sadder, happy is happier, danger more dangerous, and connection is profound. I compare it to the heightened feelings I get during a powerful or important moment during my life, like a graduation, break-up, first kiss, or death of a loved one. During those moments everything seems to be heightened, and it feels like live performance can sometimes awaken that level of feeling within us. In all the work I create I strive to make performances that can create this energy.
But those are just the feelings it invokes. On stage the characters seem to be living through the most important moments of their lives. Now I don’t want to confuse this with a particularly exiting portion of a play. It’s different than an entertaining sword fight, or a play’s powerful climax. This intensity can happen in the first scene, the quiet scene, and even the most boring of exposition scenes. Something else is happening beyond the script or the play that drives the action. Something the actors are creating onstage makes this quickening of the air. The best way I can describe it is that they seem to be living their lives at 100%. Every inch of them is bent to the task they are focused on, even if it’s as simple and relaxed as trying to make someone they just met smile. What I’m trying to explain is that there doesn’t seem to be an special story or structural formula to why a play becomes compelling, it is something that happens in the performance: Any moment can become transcendent if the performers give of themselves.
But even trying to say that it happens because the actors “give of themselves” is misleading because that is not something you can simply do, or tell someone else to do. So how do we craft with the unseen? Are there ways to create plays that tap into that kind of energy? I want to believe there are, and sometimes I think I’ve found ways to stumble into it, but it’s ephemeral. And it is hard to find: A theatrical snipe hunt.
We’re clearly talking about an extraordinary experience here. An experience that only happens in the most special of productions, and sometimes even on certain nights within a run of a production. How do we find it? I think if you want to have an extraordinary production, you need to have an extraordinary rehearsal period. There needs to be a shaking up of the body and mind. The times I’ve seen actors create this kind of experience during a rehearsal has always been under circumstances that pushed them towards their limits. They have to find a way to push themselves into living on stage in a way that is more heightened than their everyday lives. This is when they can begin to act with the special energy that creates the transcendent. There is a famous story about the Beatles that happened when they were recording the song “Helter Skelter.” According to the story they were having trouble getting their energy and intensity high enough to record the kind of loud, rash, and raucous song that Paul McCartney had in his head. During the final take, and the one that would end up being on the album, the band members were jumping around, shaking, shouting, and George Harrison is said to have lite a fire in an ash tray and run around the studio balancing it on his head. When the papers heard of this story, and asked the band about what they were trying to accomplish, Ringo Starr is quoted as saying, “Sometimes you just had to shake out the jams.”
Now this is all well and good, and I believe that theatre needs to shake out its jams more often. But all the wild exercises in the world will still send you after the unmeasurable. And it twists my gut in knots thinking about how I’m using precious rehearsal time on something that may not pan out. Of course all rehearsal time is precious, and no idea is a sure thing, but this seems to be much more risky. Time spent working on a sword fight, discussing the text and circumstances, or simply giving actors time to try out the scenes and play with different choices will almost always yield positive results during the rehearsal. The fight will be polished, the story will be clearer, and actors will be able to craft more specific interactions. But, how can you justify giving time to the undefinable? Even when I believe that it will create a more compelling and moving performance I struggle with how much time I can afford to spend on it. There is also a delicate balance between the seen and unseen, because in my experience the seen has to be in a very comfortable position before the unseen is attainable. So, even if I wanted to sacrifice scene polish for this magic passion stuff I’m so keen on, I can’t because it won’t exist without a fully formed play to support it! Do you see how this ends up seeming like magic? I feel like I’m trying to explain to a child why Santa won’t come until they fall asleep.
For all my complaining I do believe in this magic. I can feel it when it happens. Others can too, so I can feel safe in not being alone in my delusion. But this is what I think the purpose of performance is. This stuff. This is what I’m trying to create. It’s an energy that pushes against an audience, pulls them in, and electrifies them.
This is important because we get so few moments like this in our lives. We are enervated by such thunderbolts only a scant few times in our lives, and if theatre can give us a few more, than it is something of the highest value. I also believe that you want relevance in theatre, if you want to give people a reason to turn out to shows, then nothing could be more relevant than the gift of an extra hour of pure life. It’s also something that you cannot film, record, or create in any other form but live performance because part of the experience comes from sharing it with the audience members around you. If theatres could guarantee this kind of experience every time I think there would be much less complaining about $50 ticket prices, and many more theatres.
Alright, that’s enough for one day. I feel like I could discuss this topic for hundreds of pages, and still have more to say. But, I would just be working out ideas that I feel like I may never fully understand. What I want to know is what you all think. Have you felt theatre like this before? Did what I say match with experiences you’ve had? Have you ever found ways to create theatre with this kind of power? Is it repeatable, or is it just a lucky accident that happens with all of the stars align on a particular night?
If you know the answers, I would very much like you to share them.