Saturday, February 22, 2014

The Aliens (2014)

Alexander V. Thompson in "The Aliens" at Dobama Theatre

Too much information? Or too little? How much do you want to know about a play before you see it? On our drive back from a performance of Seven Ages at Lorain High School, Emily was all excited to learn we are producing The Tempest at Great Lakes Theater next year because she has never seen it. Never even read it. And she decided right there not to read it, to experience an entire Shakespeare from beginning to end with no foreknowledge. That will be an adventure!

(Why so excited about The Tempest without knowing anything about it? See: Neil Gaiman.)

I whole-heartedly support her decision. I like to be surprised. However, it is also true I do not like to be confused, or left confused. A little confusion is a good thing, it can be a mystery, it makes you think.

It also makes people talk during movies. Who is that guy? What are they talking about? Is she gonna die? When we get to talky bits in SHIELD, the kids get distracted and that’s when they make comments and I have to shush and remind them the talky bits is when we learn what the hell is going on.

Seven Ages was written to stand alone. Yes, you might get more out of it if you are familiar with As You Like It, you already have an idea of who these characters are. But the introduction explains all you really need to know; four people, hiding from danger, telling stories. One woman is dressed as a man and three of them must keep her gender a secret from the fourth. That’s it, easily spelled out, and on with the storytelling.

The first two performances a few adults in the audience expressed concern that the kids might be confused by some of the segues from one tale to another, because they include oblique references to As You Like It. I found only one such reference to the court of Duke Frederick, removed it (one sentence) and since then no one has expressed any confusion with the segues at all. To the contrary, the writers have been praised by audiences for how it all hangs together.

However, Lisa wanted to provide some context to the student audiences, explaining the origins of the play, how it was written, where the inspiration comes from. I told her I thought this was too much information to be providing the students prior to the show, that they would have the wrong impression from the get-go. She reluctantly followed my request, and our first student audience was confused and disengaged.

I was wrong.

Since then, each of our student audiences have received a very basic explanation of what it is we are trying to do with this play, how Jacques’ “Seven Ages” speech was the inspiration, and what they could expect -- seven stories. Those matinees were very successful. The students at Lorain High were most attentive, they got all the jokes and had many interesting questions or comments about the stories after the show.

Last night Brian and I went to see The Aliens by Annie Baker at Dobama Theatre (strong recommended, remaining performances tonight and tomorrow afternoon only). We arrived early to hear Nathan Motta, Dobama artistic director, and the director of this production, provide what they are calling a pre-show “conversation” though it’s not really a conversation, it’s a pre-show talk. For a half-hour, Motta provided very interesting background on the playwright, the history of this play and Baker’s other works, their importance and significance.

He also described the characters in the play, in some cases using the playwright’s stage directions, which gave the audiences clues as what to look for. This is what we strive to accomplish when presenting key scenes from Shakespeare in the classroom, as part of GLT’s residency program -- give the students something to watch for in the scene they are about to see. In that way, we make them active viewers.

But last night’s audience wasn’t full of students (though I was delighted to see a pack of teenagers there, on their own, seeing this play) we were adults. Granted, adults who voluntarily showed up forty-five minutes early for this information. Some of the information the director provided might be called spoilers -- not major plot points, but just the kind of things I like to figure out myself when watching a play or seeing a movie.

And yet, I feel this is an important step in keeping theater relevant in the 21st century. What media do we consume for which we have absolutely no foreknowledge? We have seen the trailers for films, that is largely how we choose them. And those are chock-a-block with spoilers. We read blogs, see commercials, have recommendations from friends, on books, TV shows, radio programs.

Why walk into a play and expect a modern audience to be satisfied to jump in with complete ignorance? Doesn’t make sense.

In my own works, I have tried to create “trailers” for plays, but they are devilishly difficult on a shoestring budget. We all know this. Even look at the online trailers for The Velocity of Autumn, they avoid showing actors speaking lines on stage as much as possible, because it just doesn't play the way it's supposed to on video. We get punchlines and audience reaction, which is the real selling point -- others enjoying it, not the work itself.

Tomorrow the tour visits Cleveland Heights-University Heights Main Public Library on Lee Road. They are usually quite a discerning crowd, because, you know. Heights. And yet, I believe I will be encouraging our moderator Khaki to be providing some much-appreciated pre-show context.

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