Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Why We Tell the Story

I grew up in a very musical family. Both my parents played the piano, my dad played the guitar, and everybody sang. And I do mean EVERYBODY. We sang everywhere. We sang grace at the table. We sang on car trips. We sang in front of the fireplace. We sang in the camper. We sang at church. So, not surprisingly, when my 6th grade class put on Pirates of Penzance, I was first in line to audition. I got my first leading role, and I was officially hooked on musical theatre.

Hey, it was 1980 and I was 11. Shut up.

But as well as performing, I loved to be in the audience. My whole family went to see Annie when it came through Boston; my dad took me to see Cats a few years later. I managed to wangle a ticket when a drama class that I wasn’t even in went to see 42nd Street. I remember going up to see the three different summer musicals put on by Theatre-by-the-Sea up in Portsmouth every single summer, and once or twice we even drove all the way up to the Ogunquit Playhouse to catch their summer stock productions.

But then I went to a college that had only a tiny black-box theater, and I discovered the wonderful subtlety of straight plays. There were no huge production numbers or characters bursting into song or ensemble casts four dozen strong. They managed to communicate the emotions of their characters through spoken words rather than sung lyrics and through physical postures and movement and facial expressions rather than full-blown choreography and dance. I dipped my toe into the “straight play pool” and was cast in a small role in a classic play, Lillian Hellman’s The Children’s Hour. Because my role was minor, I spent most of my time during the rehearsal process making costumes or watching the other actors and listening to the director’s comments. It was a wonderful learning experience for me on many levels.

But one of the things that it taught me was that I’m not a naturally talented actor. Oh, I have some solid instincts, and I’m definitely capable of learning, but I was not a born actor. My acting skills definitely fit better in the broader, bolder, more stylized world of musicals.

And that’s fine, because I really do enjoy acting through singing and dancing more than I do acting through lines and blocking alone. My relationship with acting is kind of like that old saying about jazz music: Nat King Cole swings the band, and the band swings Frank Sinatra. Both styles are great; they just work differently. In theatre, the play actor swings the material, and the material swings the musical actor. I definitely need the material to swing me.

The reason this concept is running through my head at the moment is that I attended a rehearsal of a straight play this evening. It doesn’t really matter what play it was; this performance will be the New England premiere production, so chances are you haven’t see it. I’m coordinating the costumes, so although I have already read the script numerous times, I wanted to see it “on its feet,” as we say; to see the actors bring to life the characters I had imagined in my head.

It’s still quite early in the rehearsal – and technical creation – process, so I was watching the actors on a sparse set with half-painted walls, a mish-mash of wooden chairs standing in for various pieces of furniture, mismatched mugs in place of wine glasses, miming various props, scripts in their hands. But even so, a story was being created in front of me.

That’s really what theatre is, after all: storytelling. Here are some people; here are their relationships; here’s something interesting that happened to them that you can probably relate to on some level. Have you ever struggled with a relationship, be it with a family member or a friend or a romantic partner? You understand the feelings these characters are dealing with. Have you ever been uncertain of a decision you made? You understand the situation these characters are in. Have you ever grieved, or rejoiced, or been angry, or been confused? You can see yourself in these people up there on the stage. A good story, well told, makes you forget that they’re experiencing it, not you. A good play immerses you in its world for a few hours, and when it releases you from its spell it leaves you thoughtful and contemplative. A good play makes you think. It changes how you think.

That’s why we tell the story. 

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