Thursday, December 4, 2008

The Active Audience

I spent a pleasant afternoon at the MCA on Tuesday with my friend Stephen (Tuesdays are free!).  There was a lot of great stuff there and it's a beautiful space, but because I seem to be developing an obsessive one-track mind, I was particularly drawn to Little Face, a mobile sculpture by Alexander Calder.  The photo I linked to isn't that great, but the important thing is that it is clearly the form of a face composed of recognizable objects.  The mouth is the broken half of a reflector, like the kind found on the back of a bicycle.  This strikes me as really the greatest aesthetic trick of the human brain.  I can altogether at once appreciate the red object hanging by a string as a mouth and a reflector.  It's an important part of my thinking right now that while watching a play we never forget that we're in a theater.  An audience will be as active as you let it be.  A real possibility:  hold a gun onstage and call it an ice cream cone.  

Sure, there may be limits to human imagination, but my real point is that I think in producing plays we far too often confuse what an audience needs or doesn't need to be real.  In Grey Gardens, for instance, a scene begins with a golf ball tossed onstage and a group of golfers following after it.  We understand that we are to believe the golf ball was hit.  The caddy takes the ball from the child who picked it up and "sets up" the next hit.  What he really does is dramatically hold the golf ball then place it down on the ground and then take it away with the same stroke.  Then the golfer stands before where the ball had been placed (where we imagine the ball still is) and swings at nothing, at which point we hear a sound effect through the speakers of a swinging club and a struck ball.  It's strikes me that this is an inelegant moment in the production, precisely because it is unclear on what we need or don't need to see or hear.  Does the trick have an ideal spectator?  Someone that would watch the ball being placed and then look away until the swing only then to see that the ball is gone?  This is foolish and unlikely.  

The truth is, if we don't need to see him actually hit a ball, then we don't need to see the ball be placed anywhere--it is a solution that creates its own problem.  This doesn't mean we need to do away with all props, I don't really mean to incite everyone to theatrical puritanism, but what we should constantly recognize is that we have the freedom to be abstract, the freedom to be bare.  We should always build theater from nothingness, from a bare stage--because that's all we need.  When we start from a picture (moving or mental) we get confused as to what the theatrical experience really demands.

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