To pick up where we left off, Jesus is just about to receive the Oscar for Best Performance by a Messiah, when he’s arrested and executed based on accusations by jealous actors.
If you’re lost already, go back and read my last post, "Acting", now retitled "Acting part 1". It’s short. It will change your life. At least one of those statements is true.
Now that you’ve read part one, let’s move on.
The question now is this: How can Jesus criticize the priests and Pharisees for being hypocrites—or “actors” in the original Greek—when he is so clearly a performer himself? The answer to this question is what the “Acting” posts are ultimately all about. But before we can get to that, a couple of things need clarifying.
This isn’t about discovering the “historical” Jesus. I wouldn’t presume. The Jesus I’m writing about is the one everybody knows—the main character in the best-selling book of all time. This Jesus—the ‘literary’ Jesus if you will—is undeniably the most famous figure in what we used to call Western Civilization. Love him, hate him, I'm betting you’ve heard of him. You might think the gospels are gospel or you might think they’re the ancient Semite equivalent of Star Wars. It doesn’t matter. Not only have you heard of him, but, whether he's fact or fiction, and whether you like it or not, you’ve been influenced by him.
Because the Jesus of the gospels has shaped European and Western culture more than anyone else, real or imagined. More than George Washington, more than Socrates, more than Frodo. For two thousand years, he’s been at the center of the dominant religion (obviously), but also the center of art, literature, architecture, history. He, and the church that claims to follow him, are at the center of our ideas of ethics and morality, of what we label good and bad. We can agree or disagree with the teachings, but we can’t ignore them. Those who’ve created other standards of morality—Nietzsche and Marx being the most obvious—define their ideas by opposing them to the dominant culture, I.e. to Christianity. He’s inescapable.
Finally, he’s at the center of our conception of who we are as individuals. From Virgil to Cervantes to Dante to Dostoevsky to Frodo to Skywalker: the stories our culture tells itself are variations on a single theme. The great figures of literature are, almost to a man, Christ figures. Of course, the great figures of literature are, almost to a man, men. So there’s that. Being a man, however, I’m somewhat limited in my ability to get past that perspective. So we’ll go on.
You might think that in calling a Jesus a “performer” I’m attempting to diminish him in some way. You would be wrong. But before I explain why, I feel the need to support my assertion that he is, in fact, a performer. Here are a few examples:
These all point to someone who thinks and acts theatrically, and who understands and participates in role playing. Our society tends to think of this kind of behavior as ethically dubious. It has the smell of dishonesty about it. People who do that are "acting" in the bad way I wrote about in Part One. It's "all an act." "Just putting on a show." People who do this are thought to have ego issues, today's 'drama queens.' It's why calling Jesus a "performer" or "actor" feels wrong, insulting.
But maybe just the opposite is true. Maybe performance is the heart of ethical behavior.
I'm aware how odd that sounds. In fact, it's so odd I'm going to say it again, without the qualifier: Performance is the heart of ethical behavior. I'm perfectly serious, and, not that you care, but it's something I've been thinking about for 25 years now. I'm not just blowing smoke here, not that I expect you to take my word for it. But I’m going to start, beginning next installment, to make the case that this is true. And dear readers, I think both of you will find it interesting. Stay tuned.
In the Grand Unification Theory of Theatre Reviewing (see here), it states that a good review helps the reader to decide whether or not to go see the play. That seems sort of obvious, but before we decide if this is a good definition of what a review should do, let's look a little closer. (The article clarifies these arguments, I'll try to accurately reflect what it says.) In this theory, the reviewer doesn't necessarily say the play is good or bad. That's just his or her opinion. Some people enjoy Adam Sandler; go figure. Me writing that I hate his newest movie is useless to someone who thinks he's a comic genius (which would only be excusable if that person is French). So according to the GUTTR, that would be a poorly written review.
No, according to the GUTTR, a review describes the play or movie in such a way that a reader can decide for herself if she would likely enjoy it, and thus whether it's worth it to spend $30 on a ticket, or $300 if she's in New York (because all the shows in New York are 100 times better). "Adam Sandler plays Hamlet in his usual, inimitable style," helps Frenchie to realize that this is a play he has to see, even if it made me, the reviewer, vomit. Thus, a well written review.
This is what I try to do. Ha, just kidding. This is in no way what I try to do, and it really doesn't sound like very much fun. And since no one's paying me to write this blog, fun is part of the motivation. (Full disclosure: I did get a couple of free tickets to a couple of shows.) (Fuller disclosure: I am more likely to see and thus review your show if you give me free tickets, but it won't change what I write.) I go off on tangents, bring in whatever outside topic seems relevant to me, and don't usually get around to publishing the review until the run is over. (Again, free tickets on opening night would help. Jes sayin'.)
To be honest, often what I write barely qualifies as a review at all. Occasionally I try to touch most of the bases, but honestly it's not my priority. And, getting completely serious for a second, if you're a loyal reader, you may have noticed I sometimes go out of my way to be positive. I want to zoom in on that for a second, because it's at least somewhat related to what comes next. Here's why I do that. 1) I haven't seen a truly bad show since this started. Seriously. There were some shows I began to lose interest in before they were over, and that's a theatrical sin imo, but all aspects of every production I've seen this season were done competently and had at least something to recommend them. There has not been a show I've attended that the audience didn't seem to enjoy, often more than I did. 2) The mission of this site, unlike the Scene section of the Tulsa World, is to "increase the flow of energy and resources" between local theatre and the community at large. I'm an advocate, not, or not just a reporter. So I would never give a good review to a play that no one likes, because that creates a negative energy. But I am interested in pointing out the positives that are truly abundant in our little artistic ghetto, whether they be artistic brilliance, solid entertainment offerings, socially conscious activities, or simply the fascinating people that make up this community. I'm also learning better how to write about shows I thought could have been improved upon, because unless you're actually trying to be an asshole, that's sort of hard.
Now, what does all this have to do with the whole back and forth thing that got started with the review of Billy Eliot. Well, first of all, in my experience with shows he's reviewed, Mr. Watts does a good job of describing what's onstage. Meaning that even if I like the show a little more or a little less than he did, I'm never truly surprised by what he says. He's fairly careful with his opinions, as opposed to . . . well, me, for instance. He's not flamboyant, or just trying to be clever, and I almost always see his point even when I don't agree with him. So if he says the show was a mess, I'm buying it. It's not his job to come back the next night to see if it got better, that's not the way it works. Bitch that it's unfair all you want, but that's life. As my wife says, fair is where pigs get ribbons.
Now, does the producer or director have the right to try to mitigate the damage after such a review? Of course they do. There's a pretty high investment in these shows, both monetarily and time-and-energy wise. They're not likely to say "Please sir, may I have another." Nor are they likely to not have any response. The crux of the issue is, How do they respond. Any kind of personal attack crosses the line of course, but as any writer or artist knows, criticizing the work always feels like a personal attack anyway, so the line sometimes gets fuzzy. An acting teacher once called one of my pieces "fascistic," a criticism I bet few of my readers have ever heard. Did I take it personally? Hell yes! Did I get over it? Somehow I pulled through.
Which leads me to a final point. Stop being so freaking sensitive. So your show got a bad review after a train wreck performance. Which upsets you more, the review or the train wreck? Or, you thought the review was unfair, and not an accurate reflection of the quality of the work. Well, you do know you're prejudiced, right? You do realize you are in no way an objective judge, and unless you're either neurotic or a saint (a subset of neurotics?), you're probably overvaluing your stuff. Or maybe the reviewer missed the point, just didn't get it? Yeah, it happens. Reviewers do that sometimes, as do audiences. Are your audiences getting it? If so, they'll learn to trust your theatre more than the reviews of your theatre. Otherwise, the reviewer has probably pointed out something you might want to work on. Or, keep doing what you're doing and be content with the fact that not everybody gets it. Or loves you for your breathtaking, unparalleled talent.
And yes, I'm still working on that one. Please don't say anything mean.
Ahh, Christmas at the theatre. It's a weird, wild, wonderful place. People who haven't been to a a play all year will come out to see A Christmas Carol for the 27th time. It's kinda like church.
I saw two plays this weekend. It’s a Wonderful Life played out at the Coleman Theatre Beautiful in Miami, an amazing theater fully restored to its 1920’s grandeur, a genuine architectural treasure and reminder of how even small towns used to regard their theatres as centerpieces of civic community. The second was watching my 4 year old grandson participate in a nativity in the tiny fellowship hall of Holy Apostles Orthodox Church in Bixby.
I could write pages on the Coleman theater, and if you’ve never been it’s worth the trip. But it’s not going to come as too big a shock that I enjoyed watching my grandson more. But more than that, I enjoyed the performance more, and that is something of a shock, even to me, enough so that I had to think about why that was the case.
With apologies to my church friends, it’s not because I like the story better. The Nativity story (actually a mashup of two radically different Biblical accounts) is beautiful in its way. Apart from any religious belief, if you can’t be affected by a young refugee mother giving birth in difficult circumstances, I’d advise a heart check. And apart from religion, just looking at it artistically, it makes for a great still life tableaux, and has inspired some truly beloved music. But as stage drama it has serious drawbacks, that I won’t go into here. Whereas Wonderful Life the movie, in spite of the sentimentality and Jimmy Stewart’s silliness at the end, remains eerily powerful in places. There’s a reason it’s a classic. So no, not the story.
No, oddly enough, it’s the acting. Wait a second, I’m not saying the Miami Little Theatre has terrible actors, while the children at my daughter’s tiny church are precocious prodigies. OBVIOUSLY, from a technical standpoint the acting was stronger in Miami.
What was different was a sense of the importance of what was happening onstage. For the adults, it was play, a Christmas chestnut, nothing you’d want to take too seriously. For reasons you are free to scoff at or criticize, the kids thought what they were doing was more important than that, and it showed.
To understand that, you have to know that there was minimal adult input in the ‘production.’ The kids had almost complete ownership of everything that went on onstage. The recorder choir wrote its own harmonies and arrangement; the props and set pieces were cut from cardboard, detailed with Sharpies, and (obviously) constructed by the cast. There were no stage managers pushing kids onstage for their entrances. The older kids (oldest 15) helped shepherd the little ones, but every child hit their marks, picked up their cues, and spoke their lines in a clear, enunciated voice without prodding. No pauses for dramatic effect or waiting for an entrance, no show offs, no flubbed lines or giggles.
What the hell? How can these kids do on their own what I spend 6 weeks with an adult cast working on?
The only thing I can figure out, is that they thought what they were doing was more serious than that, and too important to screw around with.
For the love of heaven, PLEASE don’t think I’m saying that Christians or religious people in general make better actors, because in my experience that has usually not been the case. The baggage that Christians carry (for good or for ill) sometimes gets in the way of them reaching their full potential onstage, though that is by no means true in all cases.
What I am saying is that people’s motivations matter. Doing it for yourself is not the same as doing it for the group. Doing it with your head is not the same as doing it with your heart. A reenactment is not the same as a creation.
Again, you will have your own ideas on church plays, church, kids and church, Jimmy Stewart, and me writing about my grandson. In fact, I invite you to share any of those ideas freely in the comments (this goes for any of my posts). Why should I have all the fun?
Thanks for reading.
Though this article by Charles McNulty of the LA Times starts out as a review, it develops into something much more interesting. The title, "Character Development Counts in Bringing Plays to Life Onstage," is so inane I assumed it was satire (along the lines of "The Sun Counts in Bringing Daylight to the Earth"), but was pleasantly surprised to find a coherent and eloquent theory of what makes theatre fascinating for many of us. Here's a sample:
"So consider me officially behind the times: Years after postmodernism declared "character" dead, I still believe that the human being is the essential building block of the theater.
"My taste isn't especially conservative . . . but I prefer even the wildest rides to be personally inhabited. A theater of images, no matter how visually entrancing, is numbing to me. Some go to the theater to spin theoretical concepts. I go to reflect on the mystery of consciousness and existence."
It's thoughtful stuff, and while I like a "theater of images" as well (on one level, isn't that what ballet is?) McNulty's emphasis on human emotion and vulnerability mirrors my own belief that the best theatre deals with honesty and confession, not just creativity.
Tomorrow, to give equal time to the postmodern theatre, I'll post a video or two of my teacher, Fred Curchack's work. Zounds.
“The rise of the selfie has encouraged us to consider ourselves the star of every occasion. YouTube has enabled spectators to fancy themselves as performers.” Would that were true. Any theatre that drew in enough Millennials to make a dent in the current demographic would have a bronzed bust of its Marketing Director in the lobby ~ Jonathan Mastro.
I have a few thoughts on the topic (Shocker!) Shakespeare wrote his plays with audience reaction in mind. He knew there was going to be "inappropriate laughter", catcalls, belches, and people of both sexes urinating in the corners. And so he wrote his plays accordingly. Macbeth kills Duncan--ooh, heavy series of scenes. Better put a loudmouth drunk onstage and let people release those pent up emotions. Otherwise, everyone's going to get up and go to the bathroom at the same time, and that's always an awkward moment at the Globe (although waiting in line wasn't usually the problem).
My point being that playwrights don't write like that anymore. The expectations have changed. We expect everyone sitting up in their seats (check your posture!) and paying rapt attention to the exposition.
I kid, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. That's how most plays are written these days, and they're great. Sometimes. And on the whole, I'm glad we're not urinating in corners anymore. My socks get soggy.
But I do like a rollicking, raucous theatre experience. That's where we came from, even going back to the shamanic origins of our art form. Because the first 'plays' were freaky interactive, what with the chanting, the drums, smearing your body with goat's blood and ash, dancing spasmodically around a fire until you collapse onto the ground, gibbering like a monkey on mescaline, while your spirit-body converses with gods.
"How was the play?"
"It was OK. Zuul says hi."
I'd happily pay an online convenience fee for that show.
How can we talk about the insanity of the world, or the insanity of ourselves, without distance, without giving ourselves space apart from it. Otherwise, the insanity would drive some of us insane.
But if irony and distance become the point, if our art is about irony rather than irony allowing us to see, and embrace, something real, then our art won't enrich our culture or ourselves. Practice ironic Sincerity.
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