Saturday, August 29, 2009

The Rocks Will Cry Out

When I was a child, my brother had a copy of the soundtrack to Jesus Christ Superstar (the original Broadway show, not the movie). I heard it frequently, committed many of the songs to heart and – like other songs I learned as a child and teen – I still know them. Some of those words came to mind when I saw the Limbo Circus Theatre production of Macbeth this week.

The context is Jesus’ triumphal entry to Jerusalem, when the crowd of disciples began to praise God loudly and boisterously, prompting some Pharisees to suggest that Jesus tell them to hush up. The Bible version of his response is in Luke 19 but I like the one set to music:

Why waste your breath moaning at the crowd?
Nothing can be done to stop the shouting
If every tongue were still, the noise would still continue
The rocks and stones themselves would start to sing.

What on earth does such a story have to do with a production of Macbeth, arguably one of Shakespeare’s bloodiest tragedies, you justly ask? No one shouts or sings “Hosanna!” and there’s not a whole lot of praising going on.

It’s not the play but the production which brought the words to mind.

Limbo Circus Theatre is a company formed by Studio 58 students who created this show with other students and recent grads from several theatre schools in the city (including Katherine Gauthier from Trinity Western University). The energy and passion is palpable, thickening the very air and enveloping everyone in the room. These are actors whose talent is undampened by cynicism and undaunted by a lack of resources.

The play takes place in a tiny hole-in-the-wall called Little Mountain Studios. Formerly a garage and now mostly an art studio, this is a space only ingenuity can transform into a theatre. For the production, audience is seated alley style, crammed together on folding chairs, filling each possible crevasse and corner. The set is primarily a warehouse-sized wooden door, which may or may not be part of the space itself, and a small platform at one end of the alley.

Overall, the production is strong, with live piano accompaniment, impressive post-modern costuming, and some excellent performances. The pacing is tight, the emotional commitment sincere. Even the cross-dressing (so many more women onstage now than in Shakespeare’s day!) succeeds by not over-striving or over-justifying.

It was towards the end of the show that the words from Scripture/Tim Rice came to mind. If you really love theatre as these young thespians clearly do, nothing can silence you. (I’m not sure how blasphemous it is to compare a love for theatre with a love for Jesus but this whole blog is based on that concept so I’ll risk it.)

Since I saw this show, the theatre community has been hit with another round of funding cuts from the B.C. government. Battered and angry, many individuals and companies are holding a rally tomorrow to protest in hopes of reversing the decision, particularly in cases where promises were broken.

The timing is either ironic or encouraging. On the one hand, those who love theatre will find a way to make theatre regardless of obstacles and that is a beautiful thing.

On the other hand, isn’t it great when there is money to support such inspiring and visionary work?

Let the rocks cry out.

Sunday, August 23, 2009

Live Art is Non-Returnable

After a summer with virtually no contact with civilization and truly no contact with virtual civilization, I have been soaking up the noise, activity, and excitement of life in Vancouver since my return. And I have returned to the theatre.

This week I saw two shows, both novel but otherwise very different. Via Beatrice, a self-proclaimed “experimental operetta” from Fugue Theatre tells the story of Diana, a Canadian woman who travels to Rome after her daughter’s death. The challenging music (composed and performed by Peggy Lee) and complex script (by Sydney Risk winning playwright Jenn Griffin) are ably performed by the trio of Lucia Frangione (Diana), Laura Di Cicco (Beatrice), and Marco Soriano (Alessandro). Each actor nimbly switches from major to minor characters and from major to minor keys, while navigating the time-travelling script and unpredictably adventurous score.

The production is raw in that wonderful way a world premiere ought to be. It is clear that all involved are taking significant risks in producing and performing this ambitious work and their fearless creativity is inspiring. Those who came out to see it also took a risk, always true in theatre but even more so with new plays. Whether due to the number of shows on right now, the spectacular weather, or the multitude of entertainment options in the last days of summer, houses for Via Beatrice were small. And that’s a shame because theatre cannot thrive without new works and new voices. The courage of all of those at Fugue deserves to be applauded

The next night, I saw Marsha Norman’s The Laundromat (aka Third and Oak: The Laundromat) the premiere production from Scarlet Satin, a new company formed by TWU grad Diana Squires. Dice is a force and her first venture in the producer’s chair is worthy of her drive and ingenuity. The novelty of setting the show in an actual, working laundromat earned Scarlet Satin press from The Globe and Mail and an appearance on the CBC Radio program On the Coast. The laundromat itself is perfect for the production: Swan Laundry on Burrard is festooned (yes, festooned) with cheery pink bubbles and retro lettering that begs to be in a production set in 1979. The owner Carolyn Currie loved the idea and loves the arts so offered the location for free and it is unlikely she regrets her decision. Not only did Diana’s publicity prowess garner media attention, the show has sold out its entire run (impressive even in the tiny 25 seat venue).

The show itself is delightful. Squires’ DeeDee is annoying and endearing by turns and Brenda Matthews’ restrained Alberta provides the perfect foil. Tamara McCarthy’s direction ensures the small space is used in a way that is both believable and theatrical and the vintage television commercials add a satisfying comic touch. There’s something about watching a show called The Laundromat while you listen to an actual washing machine wash actual clothes that completes the experience.

Sometime between these two shows, I heard a radio interview with Chris Jones, theatre critic for the Chicago Tribune. Apparently, thanks to the largesse of a foundation in the windy city, a recent production there offered a money-back guarantee. Those who did not enjoy the show were invited to step up to a table in the lobby for a refund. I wondered who at Via Beatrice or The Laundromat might have accepted such an offer. My hope is that very few would respond, as was the case in Chicago, and that most would dismiss the concept as unfortunate and pitiable.

Jones rightfully acknowledges the difficulty of commodifying live art. Not only does such an action change the audience response to the production but treating the show as pure product compromises the dignity of the participants (particularly the unfortunate soul who is charged with issuing the invitation.) He also points out that patrons who are dissatisfied are much more likely to miss the time than the money and no one can refund hours and minutes.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this idea, mentally revisiting shows I’ve seen that were only partially successful as well as those that were boring, offensive, or self-indulgent. I keep asking myself what circumstances would move me to demand my money back. But I’ve discovered a big problem.

If you buy a new faucet from Home Depot and realize it doesn’t work with your countertops or suit your spouse’s tastes, you can take it back and get a refund. But how can you possibly return the experience of live theatre? However much I have hated some productions (and I confess there have been a few) there has invariably been something gained from the experience, even if only a sharpening of my critical faculties.

Well-intentioned though it might be, the idea of a money-back guarantee for theatre should die a quick and noiseless death. As something that exists in hearts and minds, theatre’s value cannot be measured by something in your pocket.

Simply said, live art is non-returnable.