Monday, 5 August 2013

Elevated Drama

Rick Chafe
I had my first ever workshop-by-Skype last week, linking Edmonton and Winnipeg, and can report it works very well.  At least for a play that's 2 and a half minutes long. 

Mine is a naturalistic piece:  A young man gets on with the audience, rides the elevator up to the top floor of a medical building.  His girlfriend gets on, finished her appointment early.  The kit was wrong, she's pregnant.  They try to have as private a conversation as possible in an elevator, but it immediately, well, elevates.  Or descends.  Whatever. 

We started calling the style hyper-realism—a result, I think, not of the scene itself, but of the audience being implicated in the realism of the action, something Ken Williams talked about in the previous post.  They won't be implicated as participants in the conversation (presumably that is—as Ken said, who knows what an audience will do in this situation?), but rather as non-participants.  As bystanders, whom are suddenly made to be non-participating eavesdroppers on one of those uber-private conversations embarrassingly played out far-too-publicly.  But they also must play their role as a theatre audience: to watch and listen to a play.  The young couple has pushed their way to the back of the elevator.  Will the audience turn and watch?  Or follow polite public protocol and keep their gaze focused forward and ears focused back?

These were not my primary concerns in writing the play.  I was just writing a private story that could spill out in a public place.  But this is almost entirely the dynamic we played with for the whole afternoon's workshop: the drama played out between the two characters while making use of the added tensions of the drama between the characters and the audience.

You could say playing all this in an elevator eliminates the fourth wall.  But I don't think it will do that at all.  I think instead it will make us hyper-aware of the fourth wall. Yes, the physical space between actor and audience has been eliminated—for a full house performance the actors' bodies might be in contact with audience bodies for the whole play.  But the result for at least some of the audience is sure to be a heightened awareness of the fact that these two people are actors, that I'm the audience, that none of us are real people in real life—and felt more sharply than we would ever experience it in a black box seated ten or a hundred feet away from the stage.  

Just to crank that idea one notch farther, I think one of the implications of doing plays in elevators—for naturalism certainly, but maybe in different ways with all of the types of performance the project will present—is that it will push the audience to experience two kinds of fourth wall conventions at the same time: the fourth wall rule of theatre, that actors and audience shall pretend to be unaware of each other, and the fourth wall rule of social space, that citizens shall pretend not to notice each other's embarrassing public behavior, and we shall pretend to mind own business.  Which I think are both pretty much the same rule.

So that's what we found playing for a couple of hours in one possible elevator world.  I'm looking forward to walking into another fifteen.  

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