My reflections today are drawn from two recent experiences. I have been reading Stephen Sondheim’s book Finishing The Hat. In the book he analyzes his lyrics and shows. He can be a fairly harsh critic of both his own work and others. In Sondheim’s analysis of his musical Do I Hear a Waltz?, he postulates that the reason for the show’s failure was that the source material had no need of musicalization. He felt that the underlying play was perfect as a straight play, and there was nothing to be gained by adding music.
Several plays that I have encountered do not seem to be best suited to the stage. Sometimes the plays are feel like the author wanted to write a screen play but couldn’t get it produced. Some plays read like television episodes. And then comes the joy of a play that is written to take full advantages of the theatre. Tonight I saw a first run through of The Illusion. It was a first run through, and was (not surprisingly) rough in some places. However, the play takes advantage of the world of the theatre in a way that so many plays do not.
The play takes advantage of the live audience experience… the actors do not ignore the fact that they are being watched. The play uses the theatricality, that heightened non-realistic presentation that in today’s film and television is described as cheesey or campy.
Books can span such great time and locations. Films show us the most amazing things that seem so real, Television comes into our homes, but the theatre is unique.
The best theatre is not realistic. The best theatre does takes its limited production possibilities and pairs it with the willingness of the audience to add their imagination to the proceedings. The best theatre deals with a complete story in a mere two hours of time. The best theatre is written as a mere skeleton that each production’s director, actors and designers will hang their ideas. The best theatre speaks to audiences in different times and places.
Not all plays succeed in being the best theatre has to offer. Just like not all books movies or television are fantastic. However I wish I could ask every writer why they chose that specific media for telling their story. If they answer wrongly, I don’t want to do their play (or read their book or…..). I want to work on plays, like The Illusion, that embrace their medium. They are joyous. I have worked on the play where the author was hoping to turn it into a film or into a television series. Every bit of theatre I try to bring to the play is repulsed by the author. And the joy and excitement is sucked out of the experience.