The Writer’s Alphabet vol. 20; “T” is for Theatre

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I love theatre because it is literally alive, and live, and living right in front of my eyes. Sure, shows are workshopped and previewed, rehearsed and remounted, but every time I step into a theatre, and every time the lights go down and the actors take their marks, it is the beginning of a new, unique show. Every performance is different, no matter how the cast, the stage manager, and the director try (or don’t) for consistency. Every single show will have a dropped line, a tech malfunction, an inflection, or an improved performance. These are just a few examples of things that make every performance unique, but I think the idea is clear. Live shows are performed by living human beings. Every night is different because every night people are different. This obviously excludes casting flips, and director’s notes, but those two things also contribute to how the performance I saw on a Thursday could be different from the performance you see on the Friday.

Further to the “living thing” point, I love theatre because until the next performance, there are no do-overs. There isn’t an editing bay to cut together filmed scenes. If someone messes up on or off-stage, that miscue is a part of the show. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I celebrate it because in the shows I’ve seen, missteps have led to some of the best comedic moments and showcased the talent of the actors and their ability to seamlessly recover without breaking character. Plus, most of the time the audience won’t even notice.

Two moments stand out in particular and both involve telephones that wouldn’t stop ringing. In one case, it was during a party scene and, to the best of my memory, the actor proclaimed loudly for someone to “answer the fucking phone already.” It was said in such a way, that the audience roared with laughter. In the second instance, during a more serious scene in a show about a haunting, the actor hung up the phone, but it rang again. At first, I thought it was part of the story, but he looked at the phone quizzically and everyone on stage paused. He then stepped back, picked it up and said hello, but the phone wouldn’t stop ringing. He then yelled at the phone to shut up and slammed it down multiple times on the receiver while ranting to his stage wife something about their phone being broken. After the ringing stopped, he shared a quick smirk with the audience before continuing on with his next line. Both were hilarious recoveries and moments I won’t soon forget.

I love theatre because there is so much work that goes into each show that, for the most part, really goes unnoticed by most of the audience. Set design, costume design, lighting, direction, music, choreography, fight co-ordination, and intimacy co-ordination are just a few of the myriad of things that go into a theatre production. For the most part I review indie shows, where people are doing it for the love, not the money. They are giving up a lot of time to help bring stories to the stage. Every production element I’ve listed has at least one person – if not two or three people – involved with it. There is also the producer(s) who will run themselves ragged to help co-ordinate all-of-the-things. Next time you go see something, take in the set, take note of the music and sound choices, and how lighting plays a role in telling the story. These aren’t random choices. This is the hard work of a talented person helping to tell a story, and if they do it well, their work will be appreciated as a seamless part of that story.

I love theatre for two other reasons: song and dance. Go grab a book and come back to your computer/phone/tablet (to read the rest of this post.) Jump up and down for 30 seconds while reading the book aloud. How did it go? Even if you are in shape, it’s not easy. Now picture doing that for two-plus minutes while singing original lyrics and not dropping a verse or a lung. Actors in musicals do it multiple times a show, multiple times in a run. Sure, they’ve rehearsed it, but still, I applaud the stamina. It’s the reason Rent the stage show will always be better than Rent the film.

Now. Writing for the stage. I’ve written a couple short plays. Are they produced? NOPE! So what the hell do I know about writing plays? I know that writing for the stage involves a lot of telling and dialogue. The common advice with writing is “show, don’t tell.” With live theatre there still are many “showing” moments, but the majority of the plot and character reveals come out of the characters’ mouths. To be a great playwright, one must be able to reveal character and plot through dialogue without having the audience roll their eyes and scream, “telegraph much?” Whenever I re-read any stage stuff I’ve written, I’m yelling it at myself. The people upstairs must think I have a roommate who is forever using a telegraph machine. Or maybe they don’t.

Back to it though. Using dialogue to reveal plot and character is typically a no-no with writing and is called “telling.” If you do it well with a stageplay, it’s called “showing through dialogue.” Don’t bother googling that last one though as I just made it up. You will most likely end up back here. Unless I’m not as original as I thought, then you will end up somewhere else. Either way, you made it this far and thanks for not giving up. If you just skipped ahead, however, joke’s on you because there’s more!

With all fiction writing – whether it be novels, films, or plays – the most important element is story. If your story sucks, no set, lighting, choreography, direction, acting, or intimacy will save it. For starters, Chekov’s gun is a great principle to follow, unless you are writing something that will be billed as “an absurdist romp.” For the most part, the gun thing is still a good principle for absurd stuff otherwise people will be leaving the theatre thinking “telegraph much?” AND “what the sweet fuck was that all about?” Confusion is never a good thing with stories, as readers and audiences tends to focus more on being confused than the story they just experienced.

I have the pleasure and privilege of doing theatre reviews in Toronto. I’ve seen some great shows and some not so great shows, but every play is the result of the hard work of talented people. I never forget that point when I enter or leave the theatre. If you have never seen something live and on-stage, WHAT THE HELL ARE YOU DOING WITH YOUR LIFE?

Check out Mooney On Theatre for all your preview and review needs and go see some theatre already!

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About jtkwriting

Writer living in Toronto. "Sneak out of your window darling, let's live like outlaws honey." View all posts by jtkwriting

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