If you are a regular theatre goer, you are likely to come across a play which you have seen before. This most often occurs with the “classics” every decade or so. Or, maybe you really enjoyed a show and invited a friend to go for a second view. Before Return to the Forbidden Planet, which we saw a week ago, the actors were quizzing the audience on lines from Shakespeare plays. They inquired about who had seen the production the most. Several audience members admitted to being back for their 3rd or 4th performance. One even counted a total of nine viewings, including their production of the play in 2006. Well, that may be a bit beyond our time frame, but on occasion we have returned for 2nd performance, as we recently did with the Blackfriar Theatre’s production of Romeo and Juliet. Then, while visiting family in California this Fall, we went to Theatre Works in Mountain View to see Other Desert Cities. We had seen a different production of this play earlier in the year at Arena Stage in Washington, D.C.One factor that can influence a live performance is your location in the theatre. Front row vs mid-auditorium vs back of the balcony can completely change your experience. Of course, the closer that one is, usually the more expensive the tickets become. And, up front seats are more visible. This can lead to those who need to be seen, who also tend to be wealthier, want to be up front for the “best experience” and good exposure. This so annoyed Sir Laurence Olivier, that he started the tradition that the front rows of the National Theatre in London were the least expensive seats and only released the day of the show to those who arrived at the box office in person. This put the theatre junkies and students right up where they could see the actors, and visa versa. Hobnobbers could pay the premium price to sit a few rows back in their gowns and glitter. Whenever we are in London, we wait for the box office to open to see whatever has those front row seats.
The Blackfriar Theatre in Staunton, VA has re-created the London stage of the same name in the style for when The Kingsmen performed there in the early 17th century. Included in this are the Lord’s Chairs, which line the stage, and the gallant stool right on stage. These can be reserved, or “upgraded to” before the performance, if no one has reserved them. We have considered this, but also know that sitting there puts you in good line for becoming part of the play. This summer, with family visiting, we attended Romeo and Juliet, sitting in the 3rd row. That is a safe distance to be in the action, but not pointed out too badly. When Linda’s mother came to visit for Thanksgiving, we took her to see the play, sitting on the gallant stools (with her permission of course). Better not nod off.
The first quality of this seating that you notice is the intimacy that you experience with the performers. We were no further than the first scene, between two of the Capulet’s servants, Gregory and Sampson.
Gregory: To move is to stir; and to be valiant is to stand; therefore, if thou are moved, thou run’st away.
Sampson: A dog of that house shall move me to stand: I will take the wall of any man or maid or Montague’s
At which point, Sampson had walked over to Linda & looked seductively at her and knelt before her. As is our habit, we were holding hands. They continued, with Sampson separating our hands and pushing me to the side:
Gregory: That shows thee a weak slave; for the weakest goes to the wall.
Sampson: True; and therefore woman being the weaker vessels, are never thrust to the wall there I will push Montague’s men from the wall and thrust his maids to the wall.
Being sneaky, I had slid my foot across his ankle, preparing to trip him should he stand. The audience noticed and got a good laugh, at which I withdrew, having made my gesture.
This level of intimacy with the cast continued thorough the performance. Given that the stage is about 30 x 30 feet, with us sitting on the edges, the actors had about 25 x 30 feet to work in. We had no difficulty hearing on the dialogue. Furthermore, we could see slight changes in facial expression. In the more emotionally intense scenes, we would see the perspiration gather on the performers’ upper lip, or the tears form in their eyes before flowing across a cheek. Of course, we could also see their weapons drawn and swords clashing within feet of us. Don’t stretch out your legs or relax when this close.
This illuminates a second feature of sitting on stage, as the performance becomes a more three-dimensional experience. Other than theatre-in-the-round staging, most auditoriums place the set and blocking in front of the audience, placing us in the audience behind the “fourth wall”. Except for very naturalistic directing, the actors then perform toward this wall. We look at, rather than through the actors. Being on stage, we might see one actor’s face from behind another actor’s shoulder, as they discussed events, or we might watch the action across the stage through several other actors who are blocked next to us. Sound took on a different quality, as lines recited near us vs across the stage had different volumes. During fight scenes, not only did we hear a variety of swishes, clangs and clashes, but we could feel the floor boards compress and vibrate as the combatants moved about the stage.
The third quality of our experience, sitting in the gallant stools on stage, was observing the audience as the actors do. As is the tradition at the Blackfriar Theatre, they perform under general lighting. We see them and they see us. As I have illustrated previously, this allows the actors to interact with the audience, whether they are next to the stage, on the main floor, or the balcony. We could see whom the actors referred to, when pointing out someone with “whorish hair” (the young woman with blue hair in the balcony), or youth who would be corrupted by marrying too soon (a group of middle school children), or various woman whom Mercutio temps Romeo with to take his mind off of his obsession for Rosaline. Furthermore, we can see the expressions on the faces of those engaged by the performers. All the world’s a stage, when you sit on stage.
When we saw Other Desert Stories at Arena Stage, they set it in their theatre in the round (actually a square). At Theatre Works, they used a proscenium arch stage. Both stages recreated the interior decor of the 1980’s. Both had the sunken, circular conversation seating center stage. Being the in the round, Arena Stage capitalized on the central location for both intimate and group interactions. For Theatre Works, this area was one of many which the characters gathered around during various conversations, public and personal. Conversely, with no backspace, other than the audience sitting across from each other, Arena Stage was limited to areas that we could all see. Theatre Works, included the outside palm trees and skyline, which changed from intense mid-day sun, to warm sunsets and sunrises over the winter desert. Each production created the family drama using different staging techniques.
However, one the more influential elements of the productions’ experiences was the interaction between the larger cultural setting and the play. Other Desert Stories is a family drama about a California family who become wrapped up in the Hollywood entertainment business of the 1950’s, then pulled to Washington with Ronald Reagan’s presidency. Arena Stage, being in Washington, D.C. drew upon the political references, satire, and commentary. Theatre Works, being a northern California location, instead brought out the many California and Hollywood references, often with the northern California elite attitude toward that part of the state that resides south of Carmel. Having grown up with this, the jokes about entertainers jumped right out with Theatre Works, when I had not even noticed them in the D.C . production.
Sometimes, when friends visit, they look at the books on our bookshelves, wondering why we do not pass some of those along. A book which I read in my teens or early adulthood, might read completely differently now that I am middle-aged, or again, when I retire from the work world. I would not want to miss that experience to free up shelf space. So, too, attending a production or a play more than once or in a different production might be an experience that I would not have wanted to miss.