On Stage, Its Not Just the Actors Telling the Story

Like almost all schools, Pomona requires theater majors to serve on a production crew (lighting, costumes, makeup, etc.). It’s an instructive experience. When you crew a show, you see it a lot—around ten times, not to mention countless pieces of scenes in between. While this can get a bit grueling, you end up knowing the show very well, and you gain insight into the general process of producing theater.

For instance, a friend who recently crewed said that by the end she’d come up with her own detailed ideas of how to play some of the roles. However, she said that she had to see the actors perform the show four entire times before it became clear what was happening; what the story was. Her point was this: why did it take that long? If it took her four times to reach this basic level of comprehension, how much would an audience get out of seeing it once?

Every show has a story. Even ones without a “narrative” have a story in the sense that they develop an idea over the course of a performance. There are plays by Samuel Beckett and Woody Allen that literally end the same way they began, but all in the expression of an idea. Figuring out how to tell a show’s story is at the heart of any rehearsal process, and it’s difficult, because it’s far more than an intellectual challenge. If you adopt the same analytical approach to a script as you would to a text in a 5C humanities course, at the end of the rehearsal process you’ll probably be able to write a good academic paper, but you won’t be able to make a room full of strangers understand the show’s story or ideas through performance.

Why is this important? Usually the single greatest reason why audiences like or dislike a show is the performance of the story. Not the acting—but whether or not the story is told well. The two are interrelated, but different. If this is confusing, it’s because what’s rarely understood outside of theater—and to some extent even inside of theater—is that actors are not the only ones responsible for the quality of their performance of the story. Rather, actors share responsibility in this respect with the director.

Here’s an example. Two characters are having a bitter argument. Old grudges are coming to the surface. The language is knock-down, drag-out, and you’d expect the actors to be moving around stage in a way that expresses their increasing agitation. Instead, they’re standing downstage-center, unmoving, chests puffed out, face to face for almost the whole dialogue. As a result of this melodramatic physical choice, the scene loses much of its organic power, and the audience can’t see how deep the characters’s relationship runs. In other words, the performance gets exceedingly boring. Why are the actors not physically digging into what the script is giving them? Because for his or her own reasons, the director has told them to hit their spot at center stage and stay there. This exact scenario has happened in Pomona Theatre Department productions in the last two years.

A more basic example: for an actor, the fundamental process of figuring out how to perform a character with creativity and care is extremely hard. “Frozen,” the last 5C department production, demonstrates this well. How do you embody a mother whose young daughter was raped and murdered? Honestly, think about it. How would you even start? What do you look for in the script? How do you inhabit the thoughts and emotions expressed in the lines? Especially for young actors, who are just starting to explore this very personal process, and who often have never received consistent training in dramatic technique, the guidance of a director is absolutely essential. In fact, you’re almost lost without it, and too often, it is missing, and the performance suffers as a result. I say this from personal experience.

I deeply wish that every production I am a part of, and every production I see, tells its story clearly and creatively. It’s a simple standard, and surprisingly tough to reach, but wholly possible with the people we have at the 5Cs. This assertion is not false flattery, which happens a sickening amount in theater and film. It’s honesty. However, we need to start by asking ourselves if we’re producing the best work we can, because I don’t think we are. We need to ask how our directors are helping us, and how they are hurting us, because they’re doing both. Our ability, whatever that may be, should not be measured by the theater we are currently able to perform. I’m interested in the work we are capable of performing, because I promise you: it’d be surprising. And I’m interested in what we have to change about our education and our process to get there.

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