The Business Of Theatrical Process
The thought of the theater evokes certain images: cutthroat actors sabotaging
one another over Shakespearean one-liners, belting and jazz hands, quirky people pretending to be trees.
And for the most part, they’re not entirely wrong. I’ve pretended to be a tree in my undergraduate theater degree. I’ve done jazz hands – and not entirely ironically – during my masters in musical theater. And there may have been some less than stellar moments during a summer Shakespeare acting course.
But behind all this drama – excuse the pun – is the constant use of process and structure, reining in the chaos and keeping us in line. Some involve strict rules and adherence, while others foster flexibility and creativity, but they all have one thing in common: They don’t just belong in the theater.
“Let’s write a play together!” is the equivalent of “Let’s start a business!” It’s all well and good to have the initial drive and kernel of an idea to get it started, but it’s the work that happens after the excitement that actually lands a standing ovation or maybe even the elusive slow clap. And this work can happen in many forms, each with its merits and pitfalls.
This process relies heavily on everyone having a defined role and sticking to it. The writer (or in some cases, the writers) creates a piece in the confines of a dimly lit bedroom or local Starbucks. Rewrites are done and workshops are held, but at one point the writer must hand over the script to the producer and director and acquiesce creative control. It’s not an easy task to watch your creative child get picked apart.
The rehearsal process is regimented, and if an actor feels a line isn’t working for him, too bad. Every piece of the production – from costumes to marketing – is decided by people who were told this is the only piece they have responsibility for. To start giving input where it doesn’t belong could be seen as impolite, and outright rude even. But why be so limiting?
Because this process is built on trust.
Trust that everyone was hired for their ability to deliver exactly what they are hired to do. Trust that there will be minimal human error. Trust that by everyone completing their tasks, the big picture will come together. And because it does, there’s little reason to change.
Box office musicals, for example, have become so regimented that new actors are simply given “tracks” to learn for the character they play: Go to stage right, stop, sing these bars, move to downstage center, stop, belt the high C while raising right arm. It allows new actors to seamlessly slot into a production: highly useful for those that have been running for over 25 years.
Sound familiar? these are your Fortune 500 companies, the big guns who run like well-oiled machines. Scrutinize it as you might, but the process continues to prove it works. Simply looking at the box office sales for shows like Les Misérables (over $1.8 billion) or The Lion King (a whopping $6.2 billion and rising) are justification enough.
But on the other hand, it leaves little-to-no room for new discoveries, and this can be dangerous. Yes, it tends to pay the best, sells the seats, and hits all the right notes – but it might leave everyone feeling a little uninspired – a dangerous condition in the long run.
Featured in the MISC 2015 : The Creative Process Issue