May 1st, 2013
Living in a separate city from Sideshow has a lot of challenges, but it also comes with one interesting pseudo-benefit: I contribute a lot to the initial groundwork and selection of the plays Sideshow does, but then get to be far enough removed from the process that, when I come in to see the final product, I get to experience it more or less like a fresh audience member (albeit one who’s read the script a few dozen times). There’s a novelty and potential for surprise every time I sit in the audience for our shows, to witness the current batch of awesomeness that our artists have cooked up. Which came in especially handy when I was in town to see Maria/Stuart a couple weeks ago, because it allowed me to experience what may be one of my favorite moments to date in a theatre, ever, and it got me thinking about how we create and view productions, and the kind of an impact that a show can truly have.
I don’t want to give too much away, because part of the point of this post is to convince you to go see Maria/Stuart as soon as possible (its closing weekend starts tomorrow). But without spoiling, I can tell you: there is a food fight in this show. Not just a food fight, though; it’s bigger than your typical teen-movie Animal-House style set-piece. It’s something significantly more epic than that, and more visceral, and more character-driven and explosive. It’s a moment of catharsis, and of pain, and of comedy and of excitement and of joy and of hopelessness and of pure, unabashed gleeful destruction, of the kind that you just don’t see happen very often, even on stage. It’s something irreversible, both for the characters in the show, and for those of us in the real world, and it’s beautiful.
I see a lot of stuff get done on a lot of different stages. And a lot of times, there’s a kind of game that I (and I suspect a lot of other theatremakers) play: the game where we see a theatrical moment and try to imagine the craft that went into creating it, not just for that one instance but in a way that makes it repeatable for four or five shows a weekend in a five-week run. Somebody gets shot on stage? That gun gets reloaded every night. An angel crashes through the ceiling? The ceiling’s built in a way that lets it get pieced back together. Very few things are ever actually lost during a performance of a play; they’re just made to act like they’re breaking, when really the breaks are part of their design. Finding these crafty features of a production can be like watching the backgrounds of old Hanna-Barbara cartoons and trying to spot the differently colored patches where the characters were about to interact with the environment. It’s satisfying, and fun, but always just a tad bit disappointing, because it exposes the reality of the situation. Once you’ve left the theatre, the stage manager’s going to come out and re-set everything back to square one, and the impact of your performance will be diminished, in practical terms.
But the post-show process for Maria/Stuart looks a little bit different than most shows. Because what the playwright has given us, and what our production and design and artistic teams have so fully embraced, is a moment that you can’t turn the clock back on once it happens. Things get significantly, irreversibly ruined. I sat in the theatre and I watched the inestimable Nate Whelden beat the ever-loving crap out of a piece of set dressing, to the point where the shape of it flattened out and vanished, and I realized that there was NO way that thing was ever getting used, ever again. It had been thoroughly dismantled, and the act of dismantling it had been committed for the benefit of only me and the other folks who happened to be in the house that evening.
And that’s what theatre itself should be, and is, in its best moments: a simultaneous act of creation and destruction. The engineering of moments that, even if they don’t involve flying mashed potatoes, are being whirled into meaningful existence just long enough to make an impact, and then vanishing entirely into memory. We shouldn’t be afraid to break things, because the moments that we’re making can’t get used again. They can be talked about, and reminisced over, and remembered, but not experienced. Their messages have self-destructed, but with any luck they have sent us off on our own impossible missions before doing so.
Those are the kind of things that theatre, and only theatre, can create, and they’re the kind that it should be creating more of, and the kind that Maria/Stuart has been creating every single night for the last month and a half. You have exactly four more opportunities to catch it for yourself, and experience your own little personal chunk of theatrical impermanence, which will be yours and only yours for the duration. Be sure to get it before it’s gone forever.