Theatrical Foreplay Requires Intent (Otherwise It’s Just Sucking Dick)

27 Jun

Allow me to make an argument for the return of the curtain in dramatic theatre. I remember attending plays as a child and taking my seat in the auditorium and seeing that beautiful, red velvet, bottom lit curtain bringing with it a sense of comfort. The revelation of the set, actors and story didn’t occur until the curtain opened and allowed the action to begin. The curtain signalled the beginning and the end and allowed the play to exist as a solitary experience, like opening a book when committing yourself to reading it and closing it when the last word is read. One’s expectation and sense of mystery is heightened by the curtain’s impenetrable shielding of what’s to come and upon lowering itself at the end allows one to accept closure of a (hopefully) joyful experience. There is nothing but you and your hopes before the curtain rises and nothing but you and your ponderings on what you’ve seen after the curtain comes down. This is essentially what all dramatic entertainment is or should be:  a singular experience. It does not diminish the impact a play could have, but in fact enhances it by admitting that it exists on its own, like any great experience (large or small; a beautiful wedding or a wonderful meal.)

There is a certain practice in the world of theatre-making which has prompted me to campaign for the return of the curtain. I recently watched two plays separated by a few weeks and done by professionals with histories of quality and years of experience. The plays didn’t have much in common, but they both committed an act of such arrogance and stupidity that I now view them as part of the same theatrical trend. When the audience entered the auditorium, one or more of the actors were already on stage. I’m sure you’ve seen this, dear reader. And if you haven’t, the evil of this world will ensure that you do in the near future. The play has not begun, but the director believes that he/she will enhance the audience’s belief in the world being created by having an actor on stage doing… fuck knows what. Perhaps the actor is waiting for another actor to enter, or perhaps they are “sleeping” or even “thinking” about what is to come. This, whether you know it or not, or whether it’s intended or not, is an insult not only to the audience’s willingness to experience for a few hours a world outside their own, but also to the story about to be told.

There is nothing before or after the story. That can’t be argued. There is, of course, the assumption of a world beyond the story, but that is up to the audience to acknowledge or ignore. The actor doing “something” on stage while the audience enters remains an actor; they are not a character. The character begins and ends when the play begins and ends. To have an actor on stage before the play has begun is to take the character out of the play and replace them with a self conscious actor who has been forced to do nothing. Character is action, the expression goes, and to have someone on stage who has no actions (or actions relevant to the play) nullifies the existence of the character. On stage you move only when you have reason to move, you speak only with intention, you portray the character in order tell a story. You are not there to fool the audience into believing the world is real and they happened to have walked in on the actions on stage.

Anyone attending a play (or reading a book, or going to the movies) has already given himself/herself over to the medium. We accept that this is not reality. We are there to be ignored and enjoy ourselves. We are not there to watch the theatre-makers add unnecessary trimmings to the proceedings. There is no reason for the actors to be on stage (waiting, thinking, playing, sleeping) while the audience enters, just as there is no reason to print “um… um… um…” for twenty pages to show us what an author was thinking before he typed the first words of his novel. I, like most people, get upset when I walk into the cinema to find the film has already started. You have no sense of the opening, the beginning of the journey. Why then do certain theatre practitioners strive to do this, and not even have the balls to actually start the play but invent superfluous things for the actor to do to entertain themselves and stop the audience from settling in, becoming comfortable and committing themselves to experiencing a story from beginning to end?

I spoke to a friend of mine, who happened to be one of the actors in the latest play which employed this trend. As was his right (and some would say duty) he defended the play when I hastily mentioned my disgust in a play I found to be lazy and ineffective. But when I broached the subject of his fellow actor being on stage before the play began, he responded by glibly asking, “How else would she have gotten on stage?” To my amazement, these very experienced actors had been fooled by a director into believing that there is no way for an actor to walk onto stage. Let me be clear, he convinced them that WALKING ONTO THE STAGE cannot be achieved. If that’s not the most damning evidence of the skewed actor-director dynamic in this country, then I don’t know what is. My friend, who is one of the most talented people I have ever had the pleasure of knowing, forgot that one of the simplest things when staging a play since the end of the “curtain era” could have taken care of the problem: Lights up, lights down. Let the actor walk onto stage in darkness, bring up the lights, start the play. Lights are the most effective thing a director can use to start a play, end a scene, create a mood and close the play. Why this is no longer good enough, is beyond me.

There are, of course, playwrights who ask for the actors to be on stage when the audience enters. These people, however, should have their pens, laptops or typewriters taken away from them and made to atone for their sins by work-shopping Am-Dram (Amateur Dramatics) productions with sexually deviant prisoners while wearing revealing tank-tops and fuck-me pumps.

Perhaps by bringing the curtain back to dramatic theatre, we can save what is left of decent theatre in this country. It might force theatre-makers to go back to concentrating on story and present the audience with a fully-fledged world without employing unnecessary tricks to con the audience into believing that there is anything beyond the singular experience. Don’t take away the joy of the journey by denying us the beginning, because you might find us hoping for a swift end.

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