Theatricality for the People? What became clear after our first round of performances was that, aesthetically and conceptually, the DFR was a hot mess. There was simply no obvious coherence to the group and we hadn’t created any kind of a backstory that might have served as a reference point for the world we were purporting to inhabit. A primary quibble for me in a lot of community based theater (with quite a few notable exceptions) is the aesthetic flatness — and frankly, sameness — of it. It has been rare that I have been surprised or delighted on purely theatrical terms while watching work created “with, by, and for” non-professional performers. Many times, I feel I am seeing the same thing: stories of ‘real people’ woven together into a kind of collage, voices overlapping to suggest the complexity of a town, or an issue… or our times. Or original plays are performed. And that tends to be bad, too. They tend to be written and acted in a realistic style, which can be boring even when trained actors take the stage. When amateurs do it, it usually feels wooden and strained, especially if its meant to be performed more than one time. When actors perform a memorized script once, adrenaline and enthusiasm can help them pull it off. When they have to do it more than once, and the adrenaline has faded, well, it just looks like what it is: non-trained actors trying to reproduce something that happened before. It usually doesn’t work well.
On the other hand, when I have witnessed exciting theater that has been based on the stories and concerns of a community, it has usually been performed by a professional troupe of actors. And while the aesthetic value is high, the raw and real quality once gets from non-trained people is lost. It becomes another play — a good one, but a play nonetheless.
But something really wonderful happens when a group of trained performers work closely with people are don’t consider themselves performers (“community members” for lack of a better phrase), especially if realism is eschewed and theatricality is allowed free reign.
I want any work I do on the stage — traditional, political, popular, or what have you — to be theatrical, by which I mean bigger than life, different from life, more colorful and symbolic than life. I want this both for the sustenance of my own interest in the project, and also because I am certain that a very important kind of impact comes not through the overt content of the piece but by way of the aesthetic experience the piece provides. I can’t remember much of Kushner’s dialogue from when I saw “Angels in America” on Broadway 20 years ago. But I can remember that angel crashing through the ceiling, and with her all the gravity and hope she carried.
So after I wrote the backstory, DFR members, Mary-Jean Byrne-Maisto and Aimee Brill, started conceptualizing with me about “the look” and we started developing ideas for achieving it. In short, we want to shift Ebenezer from the working class, itinerant preacher to more of a medicine man/magician; and we want the rest of the cast to be somewhat eccentric time travelers from the 19th century. Without getting into the whole thought process, the look combines some of what you can see in the photo above (called “Steampunk,” a kind of parallel universe, sci-fi version of the Victorian era) with punk and goth and the various cultural influences with which people in the DFR identify. It has a coherence and it is also very theatrical. (photo above is a “Steampunk” look that serves as a starting template.)
But I am sensing (and hearing) a hesitancy about it from some in the group and I’ve been trying to figure out why.
“Fear” is probably not the right word but there’s is a “concern,” I think, about being too theatrical. I hear comments about being “too much.” Standing out too much. Being seen too much. Being too different from those with whom we want to connect most and, in our difference, alienating. “We don’t want to turn people off by being so ‘out there’ that people don’t listen to what we have to say.”
I appreciate that perspective. In my daily life I’m someone who hates making people feel uncomfortable. But based on my experience, I reject the idea that theater is going to alienate people by being different from them. To me, what people love about theater is the chance to be transported to places and to people who are different from them — and just plain different. And in being given a way to reflect on themselves, on their condition, and on the condition of their society by looking at creatures in situations that are at least superficially different from themselves. This is the whole premise of sci-fi.
Perhaps the DFR is just musical sci-fi — intended to model, theatrically, a different way of living and being. A way of living and being that takes meaningful human risks, a way that is exuberant, and joyful, and colorful. By being superficially different — magically different — theater can open a new kind of space in people, and invite them into a different realm of experience. It is through a different ordering of aesthetic components that art reorders perception of what is and also of what might be. This, I believe, is what’s going to close the gap between “us” and “them.” It is exactly by not being “like” the audience that we can create a safe space for them to participate differently with us than they otherwise might. If out of our concern we keep them too protected in the presumably safe cocoon of what is real, then we cannot hope to transport them into a fantastic vision of the ideal. If we allow the audience to remain too close to who they are, then they are kept — unconsciously — within themselves. Unmoved and untroubled. Kept within their normal patterns of thinking and relating. By being eccentric and free, colorful and exuberant, performance can invite people to themselves be eccentric and free, colorful and exuberant. By singing, we invite people to sing. By dancing, we invite them dance. I think our whole culture has become so depressed and conservative that we convince ourselves that experiences of joy and wild abandon and difference will be off-putting when, in fact, I believe they are what we all wish to have, what we hope life should provide.
And on a very basic, reality-of-theatre level, we have now dressed Ebenezer and his primary partner on stage (played by Danan) in very theatrical, over the top couture. So the question I have to ask as artistic director is: what would the people look like who would follow them?! My feeling is that they would all have some level of eccentricity and theatricality. And if they are immortal time travelers, then my guess is that they’ve seen enough not to give a damn anymore. Not to be afraid. Or they’ve been around long enough to know that the invitation to freedom isn’t made timidly. It is made boldly and by those who are already free.