Across the Proscenium Arch

28 Jan

Oscar Wilde

Oscar Wilde Got It Wrong

‘I regard theatre as the greatest of all art forms, the most immediate way in which a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be human’ (Oscar Wilde).

Now don’t get me wrong, I am a hand on heart theatre fan. Wholeheartedly. It’s what I write, how I connect with the world; a play is my chosen form but to call it ‘the greatest of all art forms’, ‘the most immediate way in which a human being can share’, I’m not so sure…

I will never forget being in the audience of the first professional performance of ‘Topology of Tears’, a play I wrote in 2002 on the theme of fathers and daughters (something I was dealing with a lot at the time). I can remember what it felt like when I saw my characters embodied and magicked into life by the actors chosen to portray my characters. It’s forever etched in my mind and heart. The feeling of seeing my words transformed through breath, tongue and movement into a full blown person/character was extraordinary. I stood bedazzled in awe of how theatre and the directed, rehearsed performance of that work could transmogrify something that had been previously static on the page; to all intents and purposes ‘dead in my head’. The wonder I felt is the same sort of wonder an audience feels when they watch a play for themselves and see all the performance elements coalesce.

Proscenium ArchIndeed, theatre has a very specific power. Across the proscenium arch, reaching out to you in real time, to you sitting in your seat, is not only the hand of the actor, but also the intention of the playwright and the interpretation of the director. It’s not just one person’s mind your engaging with; not just one person’s intention but a a fine structure of individual, lithe intents. A whole ball of signifiers for you to interpret. With theatre you have to be up to the challenge, to pay attention. There’s work to be done. You can’t skim a line or turn a page. Words created by a playwright are mystically communicated, physicalised and interpreted immediately in real-time right before your eyes. Physicalised, unlike no other form other than maybe sculpture. In order to accept what we see, the artifice, we have to suspend our disbelief, become alienated from the reality of our surroundings and immerse ourselves in that moment of performance, of all those intents. And if we don’t pay attention it’s gone. In real time. There’s no going back.

So up until this point Oscar and I agree. There’s nothing like theatre for living, breathing, audible, moving immediate communication. Nothing. But where we part ways is in his belief that it’s ‘the most immediate way a human being can share with another the sense of what it is to be human’. I think Oscar’s wrong here. Totally. Other forms do that too in an equally challenging manner. It’s just a different working through of the same sensibility. Theatre just happens to re-enact it for you. That’s the difference. I happen to love that enactment. It’s a personal taste matter; what ‘floats your boat’. Shared, communicated humanity exists in all forms. No better. No worse.

But it is the enactment that draws me back each time to drama. Somebody breathing words and interpreting what you’ve created; doing so mystically under the glow of the spotlight, from down-stage-upped.

SpotlightSo why haven’t I been to the theatre for years? Literally years when writing plays, rehearsing and directing plays was what I did best in the world, what I absolutely loved the most and how I communicated what it was like for me to be a human being. My ‘share with another’. Why did I stop going? Is it the fact that it costs so much to go? (Maybe) Is it because I’m denying myself something I love deliberately? (I actually think not..but..) or is it because I can’t be bothered? (..too much to do..excuse, excuse, excuse.)

In real terms there is actually no excuse because it would thrill me to go, because it always reminds me of why I started writing plays in the first place, and it might well seed the idea whereby I ‘share with another the sense of what it is to be a human being’ again. I could write a play right now. (Maybe) There’s really no defence if it matters. It all can be scheduled in, if I want to tap right back into what matters to me; my unique individual expressive way.

A play is different from novel writing or poetry because the form becomes physically alive before you. It moves out into the light and doesn’t just move from page to mind to imagination. It’s there, POW, right before your eyes. Amazing performances. Crap performances. But a huge, great big living beast of a creation before your eyes. And theatre’s potency is also that it is a shared experience; an individual connection shared. It’s not like the cinema where you sit, isolated, munching; engaged, but actually passive never-the-less. Only really ever viewing because nothing is alive before you, a beautiful piece of pixelated artifice. Not ALIVE.

Bird in FlightJohn Lahr, the New Yorker theatre critic says ‘Plays are metaphors and metaphors are meant to be interpreted’. He says ‘the actors and playwrights don’t necessarily know what they’ve made’ and it’s the audience that is the missing link within the interpretive process. This speaks to Oscar’s call to ‘share’. It’s the audience’s engagement with what they see before them and the event itself, that makes the connection, that creates a space for interpretation. It was only when I sat as a member of the audience watching my work embodied before me that I actually realised what I’d made. That it worked; that it was a part of humanity, a humane structure. Is that what a performance poet feels when they orate their own work? I don’t know? In that moment, shared, I could see the whole thing, fleshed out, the depth and the surface. A shared, human experience.

And as I review what I’ve written I feel a little writerly fluttering within me; a subtle writerly wing-beat that wants to be released, that wants to breathe life into characters again and heart into substance- the plot. Maybe today I’ll cross the Proscenium Arch sit in front of my computer and words will form and a play might begin to shape itself out.

The stage is a magic circle where only the most real things happen, a neutral territory outside the jurisdiction of Fate where stars may be crossed with impunity. A truer and more real place does not exist in all the universe.”
P.S. Baber, Cassie Draws the Universe

3 Responses to “Across the Proscenium Arch”

  1. Jerome Kiel January 28, 2013 at 5:31 pm #

    I think we are fortunate to have the theatrical facilities and the plays and other events about which to comment.

    We can go to a play, a good, well-rehearsed one, which seems fluid and genuine, so that we have observed something, a portion, a fragment of something in time which enables us to reflect upon, not only the experience, but also the situation within it; the relationships, the dialogues, the plot (whatever that is!), the arguements, the moral dilemmas, the denouement.

    As a writer and artist myself, however, writing, especially with the use of characters, helps you to learn about the frailties of the human form, the ‘imperfections’ and the reactions, the vying for power, the subservient reactions and so on. I put ‘imperfections’ in brackets because the concept of perfection is particularly a man-made one; that people should be good at all times is not only idealistic, but it’s also just plain impossible, first because they make errors of judgement (rather than ‘mistakes’, a word laced with guilt), and second, because we, some of us, expect others, some of them, to be what we want them to be, a version of ‘perfect’. We are all inconsistent!

    I find, for example, that going out to the landscape somewhere and writing what comes, helps me to develop new ideas. I also find that drawing what I see helps me to be more observant about my surroundings, even after I’ve put the sketch pad away.

    In addition, to make notes about a painting or a photo in an art gallery helps me to get absorbed by its features, its tone, as well as being able to explore what Prof Arthur Marwick used to call the ‘unwitting testimony’ of it, that which is unsaid, the thought behind the obvious…and not so obvious; the knife in the shadows, the closed book, the body language of someone, the fixed smile of another, the dead animal, the positions of the shadows.

    If being more observant makes us more AWARE, I’m all for it. The theatre should be one of many ways by which we are entertained as well as being able to sharpen our awareness!

    • ArtiPeep January 29, 2013 at 10:15 am #

      Jerome, What a wonderful, descriptive response to my post. I appreciate the time you’ve spent responding. And I agree in England we are so lucky to have the breadth of theatrical facilities that we do have along with all the other facilities that support other forms as well. I think your observation about how the creation of characters allows us to engage with the frailties of human form is an interesting point, particularly if you bear in mind that the frailties exposed are those chosen by the playwright for their characters (who’s traits are they really..?)

      Taking inspiration from wherever you can I think is key to a creatively enriched life. There’s no need to exclude any form really if it feeds you. Awareness, I think is a sensibility, and it’s a sensibility we all need to cultivate not only as artist-creators but as human beings.

      Thank you so much for responding Jerome. Very much appreciated.

      All the very best.

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