What can thrill us in a production a little while after the curtain rises?
At the start of a show, there’s inherent intrigue in finally beholding what we paid to watch; you never forget your first, am I right? But once this initial burst of excitement recedes, after the fun of being introduced to and (hopefully) becoming immersed in a new fictional world dissipates, what can keep us engaged and re-engaged in the remainder of the performance?
There are the typical answers — plot! acting! entertainment! contemplation! aesthetic awe! — and while they’re all well and fine, how about the theatrical minutiae? The micro moments and noticeable tics of theatricality that act as soldiers on the ground fighting the war to achieve those grandioser aims? The unexpected, smaller details that can give the audience a necessary jolt to power through and reinvest in the rest?
A textual example: nearing the final third of Cock, the audience is liable to believe that the bulk of the drama’s rising action is building to the climactic dinner party between the three leads. BUT, out of nowhere, a 4th character waltzes on, intimately related to the aforementioned trinity, but not someone we ever could’ve predicted to appear. As soon as he struts on stage, the play’s dramatic calculus immediately reshapes. The prospect of the trio’s imminent dinner was juicy enough; adding the father antes the stakes, and then doubles them down.
But again, this example is more of a narrative curveball.
On this current London trip of mine, I’ve been struck by how many productions provide this type of post-opening nudge through an expansion of the means of theatrical expression. As I always say, modifying the means of expression broadens the bounds of what can be expressed in and by the art (an artistic framework to which I subscribe: the what and the how are inextricably linked, an interplay at the heart of a meaningful work of art).
And who better to show us the way than Marianne Elliott?
Returning to her Cock revival:
We spend most of its first scene acclimating to her interpretive blocking. As soon as we might have a grasp on this corporeal language, she thrusts a ringer into our interpretations: after observing the actors physically arranging and rearranging themselves (apter: their selves) the good-old fashioned way — one foot in front of the other — they freeze … but they don’t stay still. All of a sudden, the stage’s turntable revs into gear, moving the cast’s bodies against their will.
And let me tell you, my crowd gasped. This addition multiplies the possibilities for the production’s means of expression.
But maybe Marianne is an unfair standard to hold other mere mortals to. Some lesser instances:
The Southwark Playhouse’s revival of Anyone Can Whistle subtly pulls off a similar stunt. Near the end of Act 1, the formerly bare-bones set — it’s basically a short, flat runway — reveals an extra layer: a character lifts a trap door in the floor, and voila, a hitherto unseen section of the set is uncovered underneath! The show doesn’t do much with it, but our awareness of this potential for change could reinvigorate the audience’s interest, by increasing the theatrical scope of the production’s established contours.
Also, an unused potential to instill change, AND an unforeseen secret hiding below the ground?? Thematically relevant to the musical!
And then there’s Andrew Lloyd Webber’s fucking Cinderella. After slogging through the first act, us idiots who opted against bailing at intermission are treated to THE FIRST FIVE ROWS OF SEATS ROTATING AROUND THE STAGE.
Dramaturgically, this literal flight of fantastical spectacle envelops us in the dizzying, gleeful spinning of the hectic ballroom dance (kind of a famous set piece in the history of fairy tales, not sure if you’re familiar with it).
Practically, this shift affords the audience a differentiated perspective on the proceedings.
Truthfully, it’s Andrew Lloyd Webber shamelessly shilling his wares to get the audience buzzing (word of mouth, heard of it?). Anything for money, right Lord!
But the man understands down to his loins (or, down to the nonexistent bottoms of his wallet’s pockets) how to overflow his coffers, and his lifelong expertise in the trade convinced him that audiences need such shake-ups of theatricality to keep locked in. We’re a fickle bunch.
Luckily, other theatermakers figure out how to do so by plopping actual artistry into their previously-normalized theatrical equation.