Stagecraft.

Years back, in the early days of Britain’s National Theatre when it was still at the Old Vic, they mounted a revival of Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear for which they brought over from Paris the celebrated director Michel St Dennis to work with the actors. M. Dennis, immensely experienced in the intricate and subtle workings of farce, would say to them, “Tiens! If you stand zere you will not get zee laugh. If you stand ‘ere… ” and he’d move them maybe a foot or two upstage/downstage/left/right/… “… you weel get zee laugh.” This perplexed the cast but they took him at his word and lo and behold, when they played before an audience, his predictions came true. Now while I don’t generally subscribe to the notion that anyone can accurately predict what will make an audience laugh – I find it somehow philistine and rarely productive as audiences will always surprise you – with a man of M. Dennis’s experience, it pays to listen.

Which brings me to last night: more than two men clashing over radically differing ideas of tailoring (the Republican ticket seems clueless about how to fit a jacket properly let alone a shirt collar, Ryan looked like a boy wearing hand-me-downs), we had on display two very different ideas on how to use a stage.

Beginners will always try to get as far downstage as possible thinking this gives them an advantage as they’re closer to the audience. Wrong.

Last night we saw Romney on his first entrance refusing to sit down till the moderator told him, and then charging aggressively towards her as if this somehow put him in a strong position. It didn’t. Going very far downstage is always a weak position. The strong position is always further back. Of course much depends on the set and where everyone else is on the stage and there are exceptions but as a general rule you’ll find that’s true. The commanding position is always above the rest of those on stage so you can look across and down at them. (In this instance ‘up’ means away from the audience, ‘down’ means towards the audience; ‘left’ means the left side of the stage and ‘right’ means right; unless you’re British in which case when you refer to ‘stage left’ you are doing it from the audience’s point of view which means that the actor will move to the right side of the stage: clear so far?)

The president, who knows better, from time to time was forced to get level with Romney to compare levels of testosterone, but his instinct was to keep back. The open stage, though it differs from a standard proscenium (a shape I prefer, as it gives the actor more control, or perhaps only because I’m more used to it) basic principles still apply. On an open stage it’s possible to turn back, to look upstage, and still be in a commanding position open to most of the audience. The trick is to line up with one of the voms (from ‘vomitorium’, what those tunnel entrance/exit chutes are called) so you’re not masking anyone, and turn to your scene partner. This is the one time that getting far downstage works to your advantage. However, done appropriately it’s a bold move, meant to isolate a particular moment in a play, not something you can do every other line.

Romney had obviously been coached in assertiveness by those ‘experts’ who know all about body language but nothing about stagecraft. Hence his insistence on upstaging himself, of allowing the president to hang back in the strong place where he belonged. This is partly why the ‘Please proceed, governor’ moment was so powerful – apart from the withering contempt expressed by the president who clearly despised last night’s scene partner. Utilizing the power of his position the president could underplay the moment, he could insist without being insistent, he had a perfect sightline with the moderator, upstaging Romney who was desperately trying to remember his next line – an experience with which I can sympathize, having been in that situation more than once myself – allowing the camera to catch a fleeting moment of pure fear as the ‘governor’ (the president’s amusing version of Biden’s more obvious ‘my friend’) floundered, smirk free. And of course, being open to the audience, the president allowed them into the scene, hence the gasp, delighted laughter and applause that capped the moment.

Since Romney’s schtick is all about projecting Power, it seems ironic that his handlers have no clue how to do it. You’d think there’d be someone around to say ‘Darling, not so much up and down. It makes you look desperate. And old. Think triangles. Relax your shoulders. Go left and right.’ But apparently not.

Question: Since both the scene partners were wearing radio mics clipped to their lapels why were they holding those microphones? Has no one ever done a musical? You always wear at least two radio mics in case one fails. You don’t prance about holding things. Unless you don’t know what to do with your hands – a common affliction among those new to the stage – hence all the folded arms in sit-coms.

To keep the hamsters happy, an arbitrary linque to the funniest things I’ve seen all week.

17 comments:

5:17 pm • Wednesday • October 17, 2012

Interesting. Sounds like Mittens projected more desperation than anything.

BTW you are pretty much dead on about folded arms. My first TV appearance was on a small Canada City TV game show and I sat there with my arms folded (as I flubbed the questions… sigh.)

5:53 pm • Wednesday • October 17, 2012

Clearly the answer is we should just remove the hands and arms of actors, and fit them with detachable prostheses, so when necessary they can grip drinking glasses, but otherwise don’t have to worry so much about those useless appendages.

7:33 pm • Wednesday • October 17, 2012

My analogy was that Obama treated the set as a boxing ring, circling Mitt, then approaching him aggressively with the stick-and-move like Muhammad Ali in his prime. With that in mind, Rmoney resembled an addled Jerry Quarry than he did Joe Frazier.

7:43 pm • Wednesday • October 17, 2012

@matador1015:
Debate like a leader, zing like a bee.

9:10 pm • Wednesday • October 17, 2012

@matador1015: I watched that 100 seconds piece that Bloggie posted and it highlights the anger management side of Black Eagle. He is tightly wound, prefers reason over fury, and probably only really cuts loose in the gym, or on the court. I’ll bet he hustled up Arne Duncan, Craig Robinson and three other ballers for some furious hoop and a shitton of trash talk late last night.

10:24 pm • Wednesday • October 17, 2012

@Beggars Biscuit: That story a few weeks ago about the reporter who hunkered down with Obama suggests that he takes his hoops very seriously — if you don’t play hard at the weekly game, you’re not invited back.

I was thinking about that later last night — imagine Obama throwing elbows and driving the lane. That’s what he was doing to Romney.

12:31 am • Thursday • October 18, 2012

This is awesome, Benedick.

@nojo: @Beggars Biscuit: I was thinking that either there was a hella-fun/crazy hoops game this morning or Shelley Oh was treated to an evening of awesomeness. She looked fab in her dress.

2:36 am • Thursday • October 18, 2012

I’d just like to know as much about anything, anything at all…. as Benedick knows about stagecraft. I’m feeling very inadequate right now.

9:15 am • Thursday • October 18, 2012

I just want to know where the splash zone is so I can plan my seating choice accordingly.

9:43 am • Thursday • October 18, 2012

I can already see George Will’s next book: Stagecraft as Soulcraft.

5:59 pm • Thursday • October 18, 2012

The sidebar ad is trying to sell me a duck press … my cooking habit, exposed.

6:27 pm • Thursday • October 18, 2012

@libertarian tool: If you work in the theatre and do it long enough you come to understand that you are only the latest iteration of a tradition that predates religion.

Some years ago I was rehearsing a Brit sex farce (a genre I love for the technical challenge and the sheer joy of hitting the sweet spot in a laugh and knocking it out of the stadium) and coming to understand that men in Chaucer’s day stood on a church porch having the same conversations that we were having. The director had worked for years for the man who was at that time the current master of sex farce and was teaching us how to yip a laugh. I would need to show you in person but briefly it’s a technique that allows the actor to control the audience.

In any good farce there comes a point where the play seems to lift off the stage and enter a world of tightly controlled madness, where you enter a dream state. At that point, when the audience has become infected by its own euphoria, you have to control the house or everything will spiral out of control. So when there’s a laugh you have to suspend your performance to let the audience enjoy itself. You can’t just freeze or the play will unravel. So you yip it. You enter a prolonged state of WTF? that allows you to be still – essential so that you don’t distract from the business at hand: a farce can only deal with one thing at a time – without going dead. As noted: Chaucer.

An audience laughs at a farce in a very different way to a comedy: there’s a violence about the laughter that isn’t there for any other form. I know all this sounds terribly artsy-fartsy but when one spends one’s working life mastering something so utterly useless one takes a certain amount of pride in being able to do something that no one in her right mind thinks twice about.

It’s not unlike Sport (I know, shocker) minus the winner/loser malarkey. But any stage actor worth his dance belt acquires a 6th sense about where they are on a stage and how they relate to the audience. Not all genres require such a direct connection, but with any comedy you enter into a relationship with the audience, you listen to its reactions and come to know its quirks. On the rare night when the stars align and everyone enters the waking dream that is the goal of theatre a rare delight of farce is when one is in charge of the play and the audience is struck by a thunderclap of laughter if you can find the nerve you can bring the play to a standstill and allow the audience the opportunity to hear itself laugh and then to laugh at that. It’s magical and happens very rarely – your odds are best at a Sunday matinee. I did it last in Cincinnati in a Stoppard adaptation of a delicately silly play of Molnar’s. I just stood there and let them laugh and then laugh at themselves laughing (I was wearing an exquisitely cut suit at the time, all hand sewn, so I was in no hurry). One of my more oafish colleagues panicked, not understanding that he was hopelessly outclassed by moi, came lollopping across the stage (allowing me to regard him with an astonishment, I was up left centre on a very difficult thrust stage, a position of power) to get up close and mutter my next line at me. Strange to say I hadn’t ‘dried’, I was out for bigger things.

Anyhow, this is all way more than anyone needs to know. Thank you for your patience.

11:12 pm • Thursday • October 18, 2012
1:18 am • Friday • October 19, 2012

@Benedick: Brilliant, sir. May I humbly inquire, why the Sunday matinee?

8:13 am • Friday • October 19, 2012

You’re too kind.

@Dodgerblue: Working around the country and in New York I’ve found that the Sunday matinee often has the most relaxed, informed, and engaged audience of the week. I know it’s when I prefer to go. Plus the actors are looking forward to a day off.

2:51 am • Monday • October 22, 2012

@Benedick:

“In any good farce there comes a point where the play seems to lift off the stage and enter a world of tightly controlled madness, where you enter a dream state.”

Thank you. A peek into a world that I will never experience except through your insights. I am trying to recall if I ever experienced this in a theater. I recognize this state, but have experienced it rarely. I can only think of two or three times in my life when I completely “lost it” responding to a scripted performance (I am excluding any situations where my judgement may or may not have been impaired by HED’s – Humor Enhancing Drugs).

The two times I clearly remember losing all control and convulsed by “laughing at myself laughing” were both watching movies on TV. Not just belly laughs, but unable to stop, barely able to breathe, borderline hysterical laughter. As a teen I was babysitting for a neighbor, and happened to catch the Marx Brothers “A Night at the Opera” on TV. I had no idea who the Marx Brothers were or what to expect. I just remember being unable to stop laughing and thinking “I have no idea why this is so funny.” I believe my charge thought I was insane.

Similarly it happened again a few years later watching the movie version of “A funny thing happened on the way to the forum.” at home with my family. Again – no expectations going in, knew nothing of the play or movie. On that night I recall the whole family could not stop laughing at me laughing.

The closest I recall getting to that state in a stage performance was in London. My wife and I were on a layover between flights for a couple of nights and decided to catch a show while we were there. Our selection was based purely on dutiful tourist priorities: We’re in Old England, so let’s go see an old English play by an old English playwright at an old English theater.

We went to see “The Importance of Being Earnest” by Oscar Wilde at the Old Vic. Once again, I benefited from low expectations and almost perfect ignorance of the material I was about to watch. Pretty much everything I knew about the play and author I learned from reading the playbill waiting for the curtain go up. Blame the American public school system.

It was the funniest thing I’ve ever seen in a theater. Not quite to the “floating off the stage dream state”, but close. I can’t explain why. Subsequently I sought out the movie (1952 version), but had nowhere near the reaction watching the film as I did that night in the theater. It’s a mystery.

Just from my own experience, it appears that complete and total surprise in the material and performance are a necessary (but not sufficient) condition to elicit that “violent” euphoric reaction. Plus knowing someone is watching you laugh and wondering why you can’t stop. In this case, ignorance is indeed bliss.

11:49 pm • Saturday • October 27, 2012

@libertarian tool: TV and movies are different. Not better or worse but different.

Watching something alone is a different experience from being in a huge hot sweaty box full of people, aka a theatre. I’m not a fan of les frêres du Marx. I find them to be contemptuous of their fellow thesps. But that’s just me. But their brand of ‘humor’ veers wildly away from farce as they’re so much about verbal jokes. Farce can’t stand word play as it slows everything down: farce is about what the audience looks at on the stage.

The Importance is one of the five seminal plays of the English theatre: it’s magnificent in its nonsense. High comedy at its zenith. I love the play, I played Algy once, I adored every minute of it. Rules are very different for this play from farce. It’s all about deadpan nonsense. The Puffin Asquith movie is very good: the women are marvelous, E Evans defined Lady B. Her reading of A Handbag is one of the cultural landmarks of the 20th cent. Plus Beaton’s designs and a very good screenplay.

The Importance is after different things from farce. It intends to allow its audience to feel superior, witty, more feeling than most. Though I can’t admire this ploy I can’t deny its efficacy: the horror of Amadeus, nonsense times pompous: or come to think of it almost any of P Schaeffer’s plays, and much of Sondheim’s output. Though in later years the intention to get airborne has become confused with the need to sneer at those still on the ground.

The movie of The Importance that you saw is very good but it can never approach the impact that the play makes. This is what the theatre is about: you get in a big room with a bunch of strangers and then people come out and pretend to be something that is clearly impossible and then: we forget and believe. This is how art can happen. We have an infinite capacity to fool ourselves. And we laugh. I find it infinitely mysterious.

As Lady B says: ‘Ignorance is like a delicate exotic fruit. Touch it and the bloom is gone.’

That play is the most quotable that I know. Though as a work of art I prefer Pygmalion in which the comedy combines with a harsh moral view of the world expressed in the divinity of the tea party scene. Which must be held against the tea party in The Importance: a scene of such wit and grace it makes you cry from laughing. But Shaw does a different thing: in his highest comic style he introduces the idea of poverty, of women who need their husbands to be drunk so they can become tolerable, of women who so know the benefits of gin that when they awake from their stupor they sit up and bite the bowl off the spoon. That perception in the middle of the highest comedy imaginable is what sets him apart.

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