Weekly Volcano Blogs: Walkie Talkie Blog

December 14, 2010 at 1:06pm

Script is king

Harlequin's "Taming of the Shrew" delivered where many have not.

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THOUGHTS FROM THE VOLCANO'S THEATER CRITIC >>>

I've heard people say casting is half of directing, but if that's true, then play selection is the other two-thirds. (I may have forgotten to carry a one somewhere.) When I critique a script, I'm looking at a wide variety of considerations, the foremost being: Does it provoke a physical response? Specifically, do the jokes make me laugh--not think, "Oh, that's witty," but actually laugh? Do the dramatic scenes boost my heart rate? Do the tragic scenes make my cry? I'm an easy laugh and an easy cry, so if those don't work the show has a real problem. Generally speaking, a show that produces a physical response other than revulsion will be a financial and popular success. As for musicals, if there's only one memorable song in the show, then I would argue there are half a dozen too few. Why? Count the great songs in The Little Mermaid or Chess or Avenue Q or the average jukebox musical. They're your competition.

Now. Who's your audience? If you direct one of the old warhorses, Our Town for example, are you appealing to the nostalgia of a generation that doesn't exist anymore? Those people are dead. Before a contemporary audience can make any sense of Dial M for Murder, you first have to explain what "dial M" means, then maybe what "dial" means. (I guess nowadays it'd be called Text OMFG! for Identity Theft.) Even the plot of a movie like Die Hard makes no sense in the era of cell phones, and much of the world's population grew up after the advent of cell phone technology. The folks who have a sentimental attachment to plays up through about 1970 are not the future of the art form. I realize they're the patron base of a lot of theaters, but catering to them makes sense only in the short term. Talented people are still writing plays rather than movies or TV: Yasmina Reza, Rebecca Gilman, John Patrick Shanley, Martin McDonagh. Read new material. The stuff you liked back in college, even the material that drew you into theater in the first place, was written for that time and audience. It probably hasn't aged as well as you have. But if you're still married to a revival of twentieth-century drama, at least give us program notes to explain what it means to audience members who grew up after it was current.

If you're reviving material written prior to 1900, on the other hand, material like Shakespeare or Rostand, then it's safe to assume it's survived because there's something universal about it. Directors: Do not automatically assume you have to translate the Bard into some other time and space. Shakespeare was not a historian. Ancient Rome didn't have tolling clocks, Illyria doesn't resemble the country in Twelfth Night, and ninth-century Danish Prince Amleth (i.e., Hamlet) never existed. Shakespeare created his own playgrounds--they're already mythical--so moving those stories is a bit like transporting The Hobbit to New Hampshire. What's the point? If the argument in favor of the move is simply, "It'll make costuming cheaper," that's not good enough. Changes to the text should amplify it rather than stand in its way. If you really want to set a drama with pretty language in Las Vegas, Nevada, write one. Don't twist and mutilate Titus Andronicus in hopes of making it fit.

(Of course, every time I gripe about the automatic transportation of Shakespeare, someone comes along and does it perfectly--witness Harlequin's Taming of the Shrew. Thanks a pantsload, Scot Whitney.)

If you're still desperate to try your hand at the creative exercise of moving a text, does it have to be Shakespeare or Greek? Use your imagination. What about Volpone in the Mafia? The Odd Couple in a lunar module? Brigadoon in a Sid & Marty Krofft style puppet orgy? Those are clearly godawful ideas, but at least they have, as Captain Kirk would say, "the virtue of having never been tried before."

Okay, enough about the text. You've chosen your playground; now lie in it. Study it thoroughly. Know where all the beats are. Know which plot developments are surprises and how to make them "land," meaning how to use them to create that physical response you're seeking. Live entertainment is about physical response. It's about cheering our heroes and booing the villains. Give a damn about your characters. Make them people, not job descriptions or vocal ranges! Not every show needs to be as emotionally gripping as Rabbit Hole, but hey, it sure couldn't hurt.

Filed under: All ages, Arts, Theater,
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