Tag Archives: Theatre arts

Theatre and Baseball: The joy of watching the well made play

Dodgers game

by Stephen Sachs

In theatre and baseball, nothing beats watching a well-made play.

Right now, the Dodgers are the hottest team in baseball. Burning up the National League West, nearly 10 games ahead in first place and streaking toward the playoffs with only 30 games left to play. They’ve achieved an astounding turnaround since the season began. Only two months ago in June, they were in last place.  Then a miracle happened. Transformation. They now have the best record in baseball since the All Star break.  LA fans are elated, fired up. Dodger Stadium is selling out, the stands filling up with folk eager to watch, share and be part of this thrilling live event. Feverish with the same zeal of rushing to see a hit Broadway show. Why?

It’s dramatic.

Sure, everyone loves a winner. But if the Dodgers had leapt into first place from day one of the season our delirium today would be far less electric. Winning would become expected and, as all good playwrights know, giving the audience what’s expected kills drama. The Dodgers story this season is dramatic because they began the year so badly. Their story has what playwrights call dramatic arc.

Ft audience

In crafting a well-made play, the playwright shapes the story so that the protagonist (lead character) undergoes dramatic change: the character begins the journey one way and then, by overcoming a series of trials and obstacles, ends the play fundamentally different in some way. Opposite from how he began.  Like, say, beginning as a bad team in last place and then winning the pennant in first place at the end. Just saying.

Part of the joy of watching baseball is the relief of losing yourself in something that has nothing to do with whatever it is you do in real life. Even so, one can’t help see similarities between baseball and professional theatre.

  • In both theatre and baseball, the crowd gathers together in a common place to engage in a live, shared dramatic experience.
  • A baseball game and a stage play both have a beginning, middle and end building toward a final resolution in which the dramatic question “who will win?” is ultimately answered.
  • A stage play and a baseball game are driven by the same engine: conflict. Both have good guys and bad guys, heroes and enemies, humor, action, spectacle,  courageous deeds and foolish gaffes, turns of direction and a climax resulting in either a sad or happy ending.
  • Both theatre and baseball require teamwork and collaboration. We focus on the players in front of us but there is a huge staff of unseen professionals behind the scenes who make the whole experience possible.
  • Theatre and baseball require years of training and a tremendous amount of practice. Contrary though it may seem, on the field and on the stage, repetitive drilling frees the player so he can let go and perform spontaneously, alive in the moment.
  • A baseball team, like a cast of actors on stage, are both an ensemble who not only play well together but must also rely on the skill of lead players.
  • Theatre and baseball are romantic. We idolize our favorite stars on stage and on the field. We swap stories about our favorite memories, spin yarns, follow careers of favorite players, share legends, recall highlights and laugh (or agonize) over famous flops.
  • Stage plays and baseball games are made of specific moments. A great baseball game and a powerful play can each have the power to contain that one unforgettable moment — that one crystalized instant of perfect artistry, of joyous elation or agonizing heartbreak that sears itself into your soul forever. You remember it, that baseball play or that moment on stage,  for the rest of your life.

In baseball and theatre, we lose ourselves in the live dramatic event that is unfolding in front of us in real-time. We watch the struggle of other human beings engaged in dramatic conflict and care deeply about their outcome. Who will perish? Who survive?

Both theatre and baseball are a living, breathing experience that is only meaningful with audience interaction. Other human beings.

After watching a thrilling baseball game or seeing an unforgettable stage play, we exit the ballpark or theater and walk to our car or the subway with the same giddy elation. We’re wrung out, exhausted. And stirred up, juices flowing, exhilarated. We can’t stop yakking about the miracle we’ve just seen. Or we are heartbroken and grow quiet and sullen and can’t speak. Then there are those times, after seeing a great baseball game or an extraordinary piece of theatre, when we can not move.  At all. The game or stage play is over. We sit in our seat.  Paralyzed. Staring at the empty field or stage.  Marveling at what we’ve just lived through.

Lived through. We have just shared in a meaningful live experience with other human beings. We are alive.

Stephen Sachs is the Co-Artistic Director of the Fountain Theatre.

Living in a World of Magic and Vastness and Wonder

Chauvet Cave

Chauvet Cave

by Eric Coble

Emerging from the One Theatre World conference on plays for young audiences, this past May,  life was pretty wondrous. And ringing in my head was a concept totally unrelated to any of what I’d just seen or experienced, except that it was perhaps at the very heart of the experience, and perhaps the heart of what theater, better than any other art form, can achieve. The concept comes from Jean Clottes, former head of scientific research at Chauvet Cave in southern France that contains cave paintings dating back 35,000 years:

People of the Paleolithic probably had two concepts which change [one’s] vision of the world. The concept of fluidity and the concept of permeability. Fluidity means that the categories that we have—man, woman, horse, tree, etc.—can shift. A tree may speak. A man can get transformed into an animal, and the other way around, given certain circumstances. The concept of permeability is that there are no barriers, so to speak, between the world where we are and the world of the spirits. A wall can talk to us, or a wall can accept us or refuse us. A shaman for example can send his or her spirit to the world of the supernatural or can receive the visit, inside him or her, of supernatural spirits. If you put those two concepts together you realize how different life must have been for those people from the way we live now.

Exactly. Except not for all of us. Children are still remarkably, gloriously, frighteningly close to our Paleolithic ancestors. They have absolute faith and comfort in fluidity and permeability, in parents who can become animals and rocks that can speak to enlighten or deceive. The freedom of that worldview, the magic that this enables, makes writing for children’s theater both a joy and exquisite effort—one has to let go of rational plotting, of the need for explanation, while still honoring the rules of the universe being created. Which strikes me as being a valid way to live one’s life outside theater.

But here’s the thing. This universe is not just for kids. Over the three days of the festival, I witnessed adults, men and women from their twenties to their sixties, who totally bought that a Styrofoam ball and a gloved hand were a small man in a diving suit, one that they cared for, rooted for, and grieved with. They believed an obviously human hand moving through the air with a squeaking sound was a mouse that had seen enough injustice in the world and was finally taking action; that a plastic bag came to life and pursued its own agenda within our human realm. Inanimate became animate, fluidity was real. The edges of our known world became permeable. And, yes, we knew. We knew it was a puppeteer—there was no effort to hide the mechanics—we’re sophisticated and jaded and theater people for god’s sake. And yet we believed. We believed with our child/Paleolithic minds. Is there anywhere else besides theater where this can happen with such grace? Where the machinery can be in such plain sight and yet simultaneously break us free of our fundamental knowledge of the world? Paintings, music, dance, novels can punch us in the gut, remind us we’re human, open us to others’ experiences, but can they fundamentally revert our very perceptions to an earlier state? We’re in the same room at the same time with the creators, they are clearly as human as we are, and for minutes or hours at a time we are in the presence of something nonhuman, nonrational, yet viscerally real and true.

So what about plays for adults? Can their stories be just as filled with fluidity and permeability? I would argue that there is as much truth to those states as to any other, perhaps more so. Adults watch, transfixed, transported as leather and wood and wire shift form into a huge animal we weep for in Warhorse. And isn’t that sense of magic—knowing that we are witnessing transformation, craving it, the sense that something larger, more true is happening in the obvious falsehood—isn’t that so much more potent than having real horses on stage? It’s not just impressive, it’s fracking magic. The wildlife of the savannah in Lion King, the singing basement appliances of Caroline, or Change, the terrified blind gods in Equus, this is not just stagecraft—it’s matter transforming into other matter, or at least allowing us to believe again that that is possible. And our world gets bigger, more wondrous.

'Heart Song' at the Fountain Theatre

‘Heart Song’ at the Fountain Theatre

Even when physical objects are not transmogrifying, we can achieve stunning moments of permeability as something sweeping and unexplainable bleeds through into our world (or at least the world of the play). It’s not subtle, but when Tony Kushner has an angel descend through a ceiling to announce heaven’s plans…well, our Paleolithic ancestors (and children) would have grasped that more easily than understanding why Blanche Dubois loves paper lanterns. Lisa D’Amour’s Anna Bella Eema, Mickle Maher’s There Is A Happiness That Morning Is, my own early stabs at permeability in My Barking Dog—all of these stories take place here, now, but in a world where our narrow realities are enlarged and our understanding of life gets bigger. Brilliant plays like Good People and Clybourne Park speak ugly truths in graceful ways, but they are, by choice, creating a world that is the exact same size as life. We need those stories, but I posit that we need, perhaps even more, worlds that are unimaginably larger than the one we return to when we step out of the theater onto the sidewalk.

Sacred Space: the stage before the performance begins.

Sacred Space: the stage before the performance begins.

None of this is new, to be sure; theater likely was birthed from acting out the transformations (and perhaps thus gaining some control over them) believed to be happening in the world around our ancestors. Perhaps ancient theatrical techniques and modern technology may yet show us a way to resuscitate our art in the face of all encompassing digital entertainment by offering audiences something we can’t get anywhere else, something that forces us to do the work, to create (or allow) the magic, even as adults, in the face of what we think we know about our world. It’s one thing to willingly believe that Willy Loman is a real person in a real kitchen, but so many other art forms can trick us into that. Novelists can utterly suck us into their worlds, fantastic or not, but they don’t have to contend with our rational brains telling us we’re sitting in a room with strangers consciously watching other strangers tell a story and simultaneously that a live actor is becoming an automobile or a man has been impregnated by a coyote. By directly engaging this battle between our certainty of the real and our hunger for the might-be-real at such an unconscious yet obvious level, theater supersedes other art forms and is able let the bigger world of transformation bleed through.

One more thought from Mssr. Clottes:

Humans have been described in many ways, right? And for a while it was Homo Sapiens and it’s still called Home Sapiens, “the man who knows.” I don’t think it’s a good definition at all. We don’t know. We don’t know much. I would think Homo Spiritulalis.

The theater has given us the unique tools to take us back to our most primitive basic reality, whether one wants to call that a child’s mind or the mind, now forgotten, that launched our species on our current course. We know what existing in the world created by logic and physics feels like. What about living in a world of magic and vastness and wonder again?

What a gift. What a challenge. What art.

Eric Coble is a playwright  born in Edinburgh, Scotland and raised on the Navajo and Ute reservations in New Mexico and Colorado. His plays include The Velocity of Autumn, Bright Ideas,The Dead Guy, Natural Selection, For Better, and The Giver and have been produced Off-Broadway, throughout the U.S., and on several continents. This post appeared on HowlRound.

Diversity is a Noun, Not a Verb

by Carla Stillwell

Carla Stillwell headshot-thumb-166xauto-95

Carla Stillwell

Let me  get transparent with you.  I cannot stand the word “diversity.” It makes me uncomfortable because I know what it has become code for.

For the first thirty minutes or so of a plenary [at a TCG Conference in Chicago three years ago], there were several accomplished men and women of color sharing some of their experiences with diversity, or the lack thereof, in the theater community. The conversation from the panel quickly became a call to action to the executive and artistic directors in the room to make the American theater landscape match the general population in cultural and gender representations. Then it happened. A middle-aged white man from a theater company in Minnesota stood to speak. He said that he would love to put more “…blacks on stage” but he knows that that would mean that he would lose his audience base because they wouldn’t be able to “…identify with those types of stories.”  Hmmm…in that moment it became painfully clear to me that there is a fundamental misunderstanding of what it means to add cultural and gender specificity to America’s theatrical landscape. People are bandying about the word “diversity” without having a real understanding of what the word means. Without a true understanding of the word, we certainly cannot move to a place of honest dialogue, and without honest dialogue we will not achieve real change.

So let’s start with defining the word “diversity.” Dictionary.com offers the following:

di·ver·si·ty [dih-vur-si-tee, dahy-]  noun, plural di·ver·si·ties.

1. The state or fact of being diverse; difference; unlikeness:diversity of opinion.

2. Variety; multiformity.

3. A point of difference.

I find a few things notable in this definition. The first is that diversity is defined as a noun and not a verb. This means that it is a state of being and not something you do. Hence one cannot perform diversity. This definition suggests that to simply do things that we think seem diverse (i.e., color blind casting) isn’t enough. The definition suggests that to achieve diversity, you have to accept difference as the rule and not the exception. Diversity has become code for throwing cultural and gender difference at a white wall and hoping that the differences stick, but being OK when some or all of them simply slide to the floor.

Per the aforementioned definition, diversity at its core means that there are a variety of things that make up a whole that have different shapes, forms, and kinds. So I think it is safe to say that a state of being diverse can only be achieved if there is variety. We have attempted to achieve diversity by keeping most things in American theater culturally homogenous and adding a dash of difference. But the definition of the word diversity lets us know that this type of thinking is topsy-turvy.

Then there is this third part of the definition, “a point of difference.” A “point” is defined in its second definition as, “a projecting part of anything.” From this one can infer that diversity is the center, the focal point, from which difference and variety project. We have attempted to introduce diversity into the American theater landscape without diversifying the centers of artistic decision-making (producers, artistic directors, board of directors, etc.) in our theatrical institutions. How can we project difference into the entire theatrical experience when the points are culturally homogenous?

I have been at the center of many of these conversations about diversity. But I believe that none of these conversations will bear the fruit of change until we all embrace the state of being diverse and stop acting out diversity.

Carla Stillwell is a theatre director, playwright and performer. She is the Managing Producer for MPAACT as well as a Playwright-In-Residence and Resident Director with the company. Additionally, Ms. Stillwell is a teaching artist for MPAACT and The Steppenwolf Theatre.