Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Strangest Mechanic in Ireland

During the last nine months of working various stage crew positions at the Northlight Theatre, I've been exposed to a lot of different ideas about logistical aesthetics, for lack of a better term.  The most customary "negative" clothes - clothes that indicate aesthetic irrelevance - are just simple black pants, shoes, and long-sleeved shirt.  The origin of this must be blending in when the lights are out, and so being more or less actually invisible, but the custom has grown so familiar that we can accept the invisibility of the crew even in bright light.  I imagine there could be relatively little outcry, for example, even if in the middle of a period piece someone in black with a wireless headset walked onstage and set a letter on a desk.  

Alternatively, sometimes the decision is made that the crew would "stand out less" if they were dressed to match the setting of the play.  To that end, in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, for instance, the crew was all dressed in Victorian British outfits and I think there is an evident logic behind this.

In The Lieutenant of Inishmore, however, the crew has a lot of blood to clean up and so we've all been issued black coveralls that we wear to keep from getting our bodies or clothes drenched in stage blood.  The problem this presents is that only at one point during the play is there a crew person seen onstage (this happens to be me) and this person's task is to enter and strike a woman's bike.  I bring this up because unlike blending in with period costume or acknowledging a customary, if clichéd, practice of black pants and shirt, it is unclear if what I'm wearing reads as attention negative clothing or if it, in fact, draws attention.  If several of us entered at once or if we consistently were visible carrying out logistical business we would quickly recede into negative space.  But with only one entrance, what is an audience to think?  There does, after all, seem to be a strange mechanic with a handlebar mustache walking along an Irish country road stealing women's bicycles.

My friends who have seen the play assure me that it is not at all distracting, but I like that it has drawn my attention again to the aesthetics of logistics in the theater, an area too much overlooked and that I think may be expressed in a few cliché watch columns I have brewing. More to come.


BJ Jones said...

We're looking at the upcoming scene Benno, Matt coming on to get his Poteen...sorry...if it distracted I would have had Kelly throw it down the vom and destroy it. It was under consideration believe me.
Keep up the Good work though.

Benedict Nelson said...

I think so too, BJ, who wouldn't want to look at Matt DeCaro? But really we're not looking at the "upcoming" scene at all, we're looking at the current one which Matt's entrance begins, and I think that's important. And I think (as you do) that it's structurally vital that people see the trap door -- the show wouldn't work as elegantly without that.

I think my point still holds in general, but you point out the other means of creating negative space in the theater, and actually the most essentially theatrical of them all: upstaging. Upstaging is the nullification of the majority of the playing space by means of highlighted activity in a concentrated area. In this instance, crew business is masked by actor activity. We are also fortunate enough to have a music cue (my favorite one in the play) and a light cue to help draw attention to Matt's getting his poteen, but I think even without these aids, Matt's acting, his familiarity, and his revelation of a mystery would be significantly more remarkable than my brisk and unassuming theft. If I did twirl my mustache, though, or as I've been threatening, if I looked around furtively before taking the bike, I might be able to attract a little more attention.

All I really mean to draw attention to for now, though, is the construction of invisibility in the public eye. This is a remarkable trick and one, seriously, that we completely take for granted in the theater. If Cori and I appeared onstage in our coveralls doing some stage crewish business even just once before scene five I think there would be no question at all that we would establish my entrance as invisible. Even if (and this is amazing) later in the play crew members were evident, it would retroactively nullify my appearance. As it stands, you're right, we've used a great combination of other means to make me invisible, but by testing the imagination in this way, we hold out the brief possibility of my existence. This is, for me, understandably exciting.

Thanks for posting, BJ.