Theatre’s liveness does not make it unique, but it does set it apart from the other major narrative art forms of books, film and television. I’ve been thinking a lot about liveness lately, and it strikes me that there are ways in which the industrialization of theatre works against liveness’ power. It may be a tradeoff worth making, but I don’t think we ever explore that we’ve made that trade off in the first place.
If theatre is a product to be consumed, or at least if it is approached that way, than it makes sense that you would want to have some quality control over that product. An audience coming to see the show on a matinee on Wednesday is paying the same price as the audience Friday night, they should see a show that is identical in quality. What this has given rise to, however, is the idea that they should see a show that is identical. We “set” a play during rehearsal, refine it during previews and then the director skips town and the stage manager (and/or assistant) remain to make sure it is exactly the same.
Is this a positive choice we’ve made? Does making theatre transition from something in process to something semi-permanently fixed help it? Or does it instead diminish its liveness, the very thing it draws power from?
As a director, I have gone to see a show later in its run that I worked on and been semi-horrified at the changes (probably mainly imperceptable to the audience) that took place in the actor’s performances. So it’s not like I offer this as something I firmly come down on one side or the other of. I know that this is all reinforced by Equity rules, so this is more theoretical than anything else.
Or perhaps not. I worked on a show as an AD where the director was at every performance and offered little notes at call time every night. It was his company and the cast (all Equity members) went to grad school together. The show grew and improved throughout its run. The staging didn’t change at all, but the characters got deeper and more nuanced as the show progressed. Often by late in the run, characters get less nuanced, flatter and more automatic.