By Robyn Belt
Theater is a means to an end. It begins as an art that develops story and character, yet it concludes with an audience’s reaction. As a viewer of theater we become part of a collective body that becomes influenced by a concept. Theater, in its’ most basic form, is a dramatization of reality that is perpetuated by an idea. Over the course of our mini-term, I have come to appreciate the conceptualization that must take place for significant art to happen. Each production represented an idea greater than itself and served a unique purpose to the audience. There is a reason, any director feels, for an audience to see a show and become invested in what they see. It is this ideology, of theater as a concept, which has intrigued me and made me realize the intrinsic value of the art.
When viewing a piece of theater, I am always most captivated by the collective vision of cast and crew. If both elements are in place and consistent with the other, then I know that a concept has been the driving force behind the show. War Horse, for example, was a production that was driven by its concept. With an ambiguous design and use of puppetry, the concept directed that we, as the audience, should step outside the bounds of reality to witness the story. One Man, Two Guvnors, on the other hand, was concept-driven in its’ exaggerated physicality and homage to Commedia dell’ Arte. Cast and crew understood the humor, pace, and energy that the show demanded to uphold the vision. On this belief, theater is a collective art that dramatizes a concept through unified vision.
After being exposed to so many theatrical works, I have come to determine that there is no gauge of “good theater.” As is true of any art, theater is derived on objectivity and the eye of the interpreter. What I might applaud as a credible performance or an effective set, might be seen as a detriment to another. Our interpretation of theater, and therefore our critical eye, is dependent upon the reviewer’s reception of ideas. The value of reviewing a theatrical piece is that your voice is distinct in your interpretation.
Of course, I regard the actor as playing a critical role in the transference of ideas between performer and audience. If the voice of a character is not regarded as “truthful,” then the integrity of what the character represents may be impeded. As an actor myself, I initially found it difficult to review other aspects of a play as I became too focused on one element of story. When reviewing a performance, I ask myself what the actor needed to convey for the concept of the show to be relevant. This question probes deeper than whether or not the physicality of a performer was “honest.” On this level of professional theater, each actor has technical training in the craft, but not every actor has the sensibility of character with which an audience can resonate. A “good” performance is much like placing judgment on any work of art. While beautiful or well-constructed at face value, an actor’s performance should be layered in the nuances and intricacies of character and directorial concept.
I began to view the concept of the director as another character in the show. When set and story told the same narrative, I realized the effectiveness of uniform design and idea. Comedy of Errors, for example, was conceptualized under a modern lens to reinvigorate an older work. There was value placed on creating an environment that was accessible to the audience, yet still rooted in an abstract, theatrical world. I was impressed not only by the sheer enormity of the set, but the ability of the cast and crew to adapt their environment to fit their needs. Within seconds, a scene in a lush hotel complex, transformed into a seedy brothel that contained the dredges of society. I applaud the director for a consistency in vision that modernized Shakespeare in such an extreme manner. There is appreciation to be found in the theatrical choices of a production and I tried to pay credit to those choices in my reviews. The choice, or the concept, is now something that will I engage when viewing a piece of theater. That is not to say that I will disregard other elements of performance or design, but I will strive to make the connections between the story and the conveyance of story.
Perhaps it is the unusual choices in a performance that provides the most impact in our society. It is important to recognize that theater does more than offer escapism to a world that desperately needs escape. Rather, the abstraction and dramatization of reality is an artistic catharsis that allows us to reexamine our lives. The Veil was more than a meditation on the supernatural. The production was ambiguous in its theme suggesting that an audience could resonate with the religiosity of the play, themes of substance abuse, or the destruction of security.
Catharsis is to be found in how a theater-viewer responds to the actions onstage. In our reactions, there is a release of emotion that was inspired by a fictional narrative. Like a great story, great theater engages our mind to relate a concept to our own lives or to find beauty in the stillness of a moment.