Empty Space

Deadly Theatre: Death by Lackluster & Lack of Connection

I found his writing to be a bit confusing to follow at times. I would waver back and forth between understanding the point he was trying to make and then seeing some contradictions. It is a bit confusing to understand, exactly, what Brooks wants, when he is criticizes how lackluster, unentertaining and disconnected theatre today is compared to the past, yet also criticizes actors imitating other actors to perform in the same manner. Unpacking this I can see that through his idea that “meaning” is something of the present, so the experience brought through theatre should reflect the present. Down with tradition in plays such as Shakespeare’s. Yet he refers to the tradition as being lost as a bad thing. It seems as though what is shown as “tradition” nowadays is merely just photo copy after photo copy of what originally had been, watering down the original intentions of what the forefathers of that play intended. Yes? No? Moving on…

Generally speaking, dead theatre is a system in which exists a vicious circle where all of its parts, from actor to critic, suffer from “incompetence,” where the cycle has led the way to the rise of mediocrity. Where does this incompetency come from? I noticed several major themes:

  1. Quality of theatre has gone down, and what we have been given is lackluster experiences – the rise of mediocrity.  But why? Because it is dead. But how?
  2. Many suffer from having old views imposed upon the play being put up in present time. The play comes with a preconceived notion of how it should be, its own version of sign vs. signified. Who even defines what the signified must be? Should not the signifier, the text, leave open the room to interpret what is signified?Characters are played based on what one thinks the character should be played and not pulling from their own experiences.  Imitation or mirror, as he calls it, lends itself to the copy machine effect, where each version becomes less robust than the previous, and then copies and copies later, it has become dim, far and majorly disconnected from the original.In one example, Brooks says, “Nothing is reborn.” (page 15)  There is a lack of new, a lack of connection, a lack of freshness extracted from the piece that disconnects it from the audience.  Everything has to die in order other things to be reborn. The circle of life. Each performance run is an opportunity to resuscitate the play. This reminds me a lot of Los Angeles, where each day, the weather is essentially a copy of the day before, nothing fresh nothing new. Nature is never allowed to die or hibernate and therefore there is this sense of decaying stagnancy. Four seasons bring fresh outlooks. Dead theatre represents this lack of a certain life cycle, trapped inside repetition.
  3.  Playing to the audience is important. However, Dead theatre lacks a fresh connection to the current heartbeat of the current audience. It is stuck in the copy effect, with no fresh outlook. It is stuck on the old, defined signified notion that  the current audience has no connection to. So how do revivals sruvive? Each year the Tony’s point out a revival survival. These runs must be making this connection to the current audience, taking a fresh look on an old signifier. Anything Goes with Sutton Foster landed back on Broadway several years ago, a far cry from the stage version with Ethel Merman. Merman’s version was clearly a sign of the times, from costume to plot. The recent adapted stage interpretation of Holiday Inn is a jump from its screen counterpart of the 1940s, adding characters and scenery, costumes and music to connect to the current audience. Perhaps this is the reason why “Springtime for Hitler” in The Producers (a play in a play) did so well in that world of the play – where the producers thought it would flop was exactly what made it a hit, a fresh, new loo and redefined interpretation of an old dictator. I wonder if Brooks would consider these examples dead theatre.
  4. I believe that “intellectual satisfaction” vs a true experience — where the audience accepts the theater, lackluster as it is, is in part due to the current state of the audience and the saturation of “entertainment.” At least in the last ten years, 3 minute video clips are replacing full length programming. Buzzfeed style list articles are replacing in-depth reporting. Audiences can be entertained anywhere at any time. We accept the diminishing quality in this land, overly saturated with content. The audience is used to being satisfied easily and quickly, and will accept most anything as entertainment (generally speaking).

Immediate Theater

In explaining the relationship of director and subject to the designer and the designer’s responsibilities, Brooks essentially describes that the designer must work in tandem with the director in the same tempo, as they dance through the play to create the ideal, malleable fengshui of the set.  Brooks reminds me of an almost like Goldilocks-like figure. Some designers are ready too soon. Some are designers create sets that are too rigid. But this, this designer is just right!

A true designer will think of his designs as being all the time in motion, in action, in relation to what the actor brings to a scene as it unfolds…the designer thinks in terms of the fourth dimension, the passage of time.”

The designer is fluid, moving with the set and the play develops. It is a process where design and direction are informed over time.  If you want to make God laugh, show him your plans for stage directions on the first day of rehearsal.  What it seems that Brooks is basically trying to say that the process of design (and directing) come about through an organic process of a show’s evolution starting with the first rehearsal.

A director enables and actor to reveal his own performance, that he might otherwise have clouded for himself.

From organic to actor psychology, Brooks gets deep into the psyche of actors and their methods, a very insightful look into my own head.

Takeaways: Design is organic, can change over time and sets should be able to change with the needs of the evolving show.

Brooks analysis in both chapters, although insightful and a great rubric in which to understand theater and design, seems to only find resolution in a world where money, time and resources are plenty, a world without the normal restraints. He does say that these restraints exist and lead to the dead theatre problem. However, the bigger question is how can a designer align with his curriculum yet still be meeting the obvious constraints of reality?

*Side note: I believe that everything good scholar references Pavlov, and Brooks, in his psychology of the actor,
drops a Pavlov dog reference (page 138). This is where Brooks won me over

Visits to a Small Planet

After years of studying and performing theater, I found Fuchs’s piece to be a marvelous applicable guide via a lite metaphor, that each play is not language to read but a separate world existing in time and space, that one must “see” and “experience” to fully understand its full, multi-dimensional nature.

She begins by making it clear (and ends with this point as well) that nothing in a play is accidental, and reason rests within each choice made in the play:

Nothing occurs by “chance,” not even chance.

This is the first of three basic rules that underline her guidelines: 1) Nothing in a play is accidental, there’s always a reason,  2) Every choice you make when determining the world of the play must be based in fact & 3) Find the patterns.

There should be actual evidence for what you report.

From her guidelines I thought I would make a quick reference checklist of the items that she challenges the reader, designer, actor, whomever, to inquire about a play, for future reference on the matter.

[1] View the as a tiny round ball, a small planet of its own

[ ] What kind of space exists on this planet (landscape, terrain, etc)
[ ] How does time pass here
[ ] What is the climate like
[ ] How are the tone and mood
[ ] Examine possible hidden spaces of the planet using the above
[ ] Listen for the music and sounds of this planet

[2] Look at the Social Nature & the Beings within the play

[ ] Is the planet public or private
[ ] What are its rules for class structure
[ ] What is the social hierarchy structure:
[ ] How are beings arranged – groups, singular, mix
[ ] Is it more of a bureaucracy, democracy, oligarchy, etc
[ ] What characteristics or tropes do beings exhibit here
[ ] What do beings wear here
[ ] What are interactions like between beings – calm, high tension, etc
[ ] How is language expressed here – monologue, full of feelings, logically,
metaphorically, harsh, soft, through silence…

[3] Changes (over time)

[ ] Create a timeline of 3 key frames: The first being from the start, the last from      the end and the third being a significant moment from the middle
[ ] What was the reason that key frame 1 (first scene) had to go to key frame 3          (final scene)
[ ] Were there any landscape changes (location, terrain etc)
[ ] How did time change (in hours, seasons, years etc)
[ ] How did language change/did language change
[ ] Did the tone/mood change
[ ] How did the dress change
[ ] How did the action change (this can inform genre)
[ ] Look at what did not change – is there a control group
[ ] How do the changes and progression inform the next step in particular
trajectory you are looking at

[4] You

[ ] How are you being made to feel by the play (this can shed light on the

[5] Worlds Collide

[ ]Are other words referenced in the play (this reminds me of TV shows
inserting social commentary in the “real world” happening at that particular
time – which is rarely done I feel. Also one way this happens in TV is when a
show takes place at a place like Disneyland or a field trip to a “real” place

[6] Patterns

[ ] Find the patterns in the play – beings live within these rules of the world
(think of it like the rules of an improv seen and obeying the laws established
in those)


Feature image source: https://performancemakers.wordpress.com/