process, product, risk and "physical theater"

Lisa Drostova of the East Bay Express, in her recent review of Theater de la Jeune Lune’s production of The Miser asks why we don’t see more “intensely physical theater” in the East Bay, why it is that when we do see it, it comes from outside companies like Jeune Lune and Culture Clash and Mary Zimmerman’s ensemble productions.

“Most of our houses simply don’t go as far as the companies that visit,” Drostova writes, blaming it on a “Stanislavskian fixation on text analysis.”

The real answer is far simpler and more obvious:

Most theater houses put up a play in 4-6 weeks. That means there’s no time for much of anything other than getting the show on its feet to the best effect possible.

I saw it in Merry Wives: the people working on it were so good–they were being paid to be that good full-time, and showed up having done their homework, prepared and thoughtful. A few of the puppeteers had experience working together in Atlanta, and their shared training helped tremendously. There was no way the show would be terrible. But it wouldn’t be utterly brilliant, either–how could it? By the very nature of the regional theater schedule, it didn’t take the risks that come with completely committing, full-time, to a process. When a group doesn’t have the shared time with which to put a show together, the result simply will not be a “Total Play” with dynamic physical consistency, complexity, oomph.

That happens when companies have time to work together, to build a common, specific physical and emotional and visual language both onstage for plays and offstage in training. That’s why dance companies take classes together multiple times a week. Culture Clash has been working together for 22 years. Jeune Lune has been doing its thing together since 1978, with all three founding artists having gone to Lecoq together. Such groups (let us not forget my fave) generally have a rotating repertory of plays, which have been developed over YEARS by the time they get to a run at the Berkeley Rep or whatever.

Theater critics need to write about these pragmatic realities when they attempt to interrogate the artistic results. People who watch theater need to know about the pragmatic realities when they begin to see plays.

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