For once, I didn’t see a show on closing night. You can still check this out! It runs through April 19.
As we move into this strange human experiment in containment, all of my performing arts colleagues are struggling. Shows are, of course, being canceled. Lots of people’s day jobs, if they have them, are in things like events management and catering; those jobs also disappeared in the past ten days.
Theater people, though are, endlessly inventive. We have to make stories and we will figure out how. I also think that when this is all over, people will be so hungry for human connection that they’ll flock to the theaters…assuming that we have something for them to flock to.
Ever since I visited Theater Wit in the summer of 2017, I have been following them with some interest. Their vision for the theater as a social hub is an interesting one. They have a great bar at the center of their complex, and then there are 3 (4?) 100-ish-seat theaters. They had this idea that going to the theater should be sort of like going to the movies: “Let’s go down to Theater Wit and see what’s playing.” On a given night, you might have three or four very different options. They also sell some interesting subscriptions, including a $30/month pass that lets you see an unlimited number of shows (kind of like those movie passes everyone was doing a while back), and one of the most flexible season ticket systems I’ve ever seen.
In the face of this crisis, in the midst of their run of Teenage Dick, they decided to sell tickets to watch it online. I know that a few other theaters have done this (I have a ticket to watch Cry It Out soon at City Theater in Pittsburgh), but I think they might have been the first. From what I’ve been able to gather, the midwest Equity office was quicker to grant permission for streaming than the New York one, which may have been a factor. Putting together the permissions to do this must have been an undertaking, technology aside, but they did it.
I had been interested in seeing Teenage Dick since it premiered. I’m always interested in how Shakespeare is adapted and what we take away from it, what it says about our present. The premise of Teenage Dick is that Richard, a teen who has cerebral palsy, wants to run for senior class president. To get there, he has to take out Eddie, the meathead quarterback, and Clarissa, an obnoxiously devout student Christian club leader.
The script is clever, especially at a line level. Richard speaks in a mix of Shakespeare, makespeare, and modern slang. Everyone else talks like modern teens, and occasionally they say things to Richard like, “You have got to stop talking like a Ren Faire freak.” It borrows conventions from Shakespeare’s plays, most especially the use of soliloquy and asides. It also borrows conventions from John Hughes movies, while poking fun at them (there’s literally a line making fun of John Hughes movies).
One thing I love about Shakespeare’s tragedies that has unfortunately gone out of fashion—a fashion that was not revived in this script—is that they always end with an establishment of a new order. In Richard III, the play traces a society unraveling; and at the end, the Earl of Richmond has the last word, establishing his new monarchy, uniting the red rose and the white, and ending this generational war (it’s all propaganda, but in the theater, we say yes). In our production last year, audiences cheered at the line, “The bloody dog is dead!” After being so wound up into the tension and destruction of that story, they were relieved at this moment of hope.
I love classical tragedies because they allow the community to exorcise its sins and then receive new life. But for the past, like, 150 years, we just leave the theater at the end of a tragedy with the last image being violence and decay. It’s like if the Easter story ended on Good Friday. My one quibble with the script is that I don’t think the tragedy is complete without the Earl of Richmond. It’s like a melody that never resolves. And in this time of crisis, I need that resolution and completion. But playwright Mike Lew is not in any way unusual in this, and it’s more my grump about nearly all tragedies written since the invention of the Model A.
The acting was brilliant, particularly Richard (MacGregory Arney) and Anne (Courtney Rikki Green). One part, especially, reminded me of something we worked hard to create in our production. When (Shakespeare’s) Richard wooed Lady Anne, I asked Scott to not play deception. To just make it as honest and beautiful and loving as possible. And then when she leaves the stage, there’s this transformation into “Was ever woman in this humor wooed?” If Richard has been utterly honest and believable through that scene, that transformation is arresting. I didn’t get that in the equivalent to the wooing scene in this play, but there was a later scene where Anne confides a secret in Richard and he responds in this loving, honest, beautiful way…and then the lights change and he says something like, “I’m going to use this to my own ends!” I felt what I hope audiences experienced in my production—a gasp, a realization that I, like Anne, had been taken in. I actually thought, “Oh, interesting, the playwright gives us this scene so we can see his human side.” And then, NOPE.
The set was simple and spare. It was staged in the alley, with a bank of red lockers at either end, and simple set pieces (student desks, a ballet barre, a bed) moved in from the sides. The floor was painted like a high school gym, with the Rosedale High logo in a circle in the center. The lighting design helped shape the space and tell the story, in particular in moments where it isolated Richard from the rest of the action.
I enjoyed the play, although the theater-going experience was, obviously, not the same. The performance had been recorded from a stationary camera (the angle didn’t change), and it was only available during the time when the show would have been happening. The theater wanted to have as close to the experience of everyone watching it in real time as possible. They also had an online “bar” via gotomeeting afterward, but I was too tired to hit it (oh yea, the show is on CENTRAL TIME. So when I thought, “Cool, an 8 pm curtain,” I was an hour wrong). It felt a lot like when I was directing via Skype last year. I could see the actors’ faces clearly, possibly better than when I’m in many theaters. But there was obviously something missing.
One thing I am curious about, and have yet to find an appropriate scientific explanation for, is the way that it feels to be in a space together. Even when the audience is in the dark, actors can feel whether they are engaged. What is that feeling? How does our brain do it? What sense helps us understand?
Streaming performances are better than no performances. Theater Wit is to be commended for trying something out. I enjoyed this play and found it deeply moving in parts. But what is the name of the thing that we miss when we aren’t in the space together?