An art not made but doneBy ROBERT W. BETHUNE
ART TIMES June 2006
People who love the theater, whether artists or audience—or even both—invariably have a drawer full of souvenirs somewhere. Ticket stubs, posters, programs, bits and pieces of costumes or props, autographs, photos, pressed flowers from opening nights, opening night telegrams (yes, people do still do that, though it's getting harder all the time to actually get one delivered in the old-fashioned way.) A lot of these sorts of souvenirs are pretty mysterious unless you know the story. For example, there's a pair of fuzzy dice in my drawer. They were part of the getting-to-know-you ice-breaking fun and games in three or four productions done a few years ago.
There's a very beat-up costume ring on my shelf; it was the object of an emergency repair operation when it got crushed accidentally during Act I and was vitally needed on stage during Act II.
Well, I'm musing on this because I recently came back from a nice long vacation—a cruise on the Med—and it occurred to me that these theatrical mementos are remarkably like the souvenirs you bring back from a trip. They're usually odds and ends, rarely valuable in themselves, evocative of memories for the person who has the memories, and pretty much meaningless to anybody else. They are the flotsam and jetsam of a process, an experience, a thing done, related to what happened but not actually an integral part of it, the peripheral tangible correlatives of an intangible, ephemeral experience. One hangs onto them because one would like very much to have something out of the experience that is not intangible, not ephemeral, but there is no such thing, nothing that was truly of the experience is tangible. So, one takes what one can get.
Theater is intangible. The physical paraphernalia—the “mechanical accessories,” as the OED would have it, of the art—are meaningless. (Tell that to a costume, set or properties designer over a beer and you might wind up in a fistfight, but it's true even so.) They are exactly what the OED says they are—the mechanical accessories of a process that is essentially an activity and the experience of that activity. There is a story told of the great Chinese actor Mei Lan-Fang that he was as mesmerizing performing extempore at a dinner party in a Western dinner jacket, without staging, musicians or any of the fabulously beautiful costuming and makeup typical of Chinese traditional theatre, as he was on stage with all his paraphernalia about him. The essence of what he did was the only part of it that truly mattered.
It is therefore surely one of those ironies that life hands you with a condescending sneer that most of the effort involved in theatrical production has to do with the paraphernalia. Sets are the worst; they can easily eat up well over half or even three-quarters of your time, money and energy while contributing at best perhaps ten percent of overall theatrical value. Costumes are the most problematical, unless you're doing Oh, Calcutta! you pretty much have to have them, but they also consume resources disproportionate to their value. Lighting is the least objectionable; the equipment represents mostly capital rather than operating expense, and light itself is wonderfully simple and intangible, for all that many lighting designers like to rub their fingers in it.
Even the text is paraphernalia. It points the way to the activity; it is not the activity itself. It tells you a great deal about the activity; it does not embody it or produce it. You can have plays without theater, and you can have theater without plays. When all is said and done, even the written play itself is nothing but a souvenir of something that happened, or a prognostication of something that might happen. Of all the tangibles, the paraphernalia, associated with theatrical production, the playtext is probably the most important—indeed, under modern law, it is the only element that is actually protected as an artistic product—but even so, it is not the thing itself; it is another of the many mechanical accessories of it.
So if the theater is evanescence, a chimera, a fabulous monster, why not let the monster be itself? Why not begin by saying, I shall not care what the actors wear so long as they are comfortable and can move expressively in it. I shall not care what the stage looks like, so long as it is safe to perform upon and allows expressive movement. I shall not care how the show is lit so long as it can be seen clearly. (That one hurts me the most, you know.) I shall concern myself with the stories we briefly tell, the feelings we briefly evoke, the characters we briefly embody and the thoughts we briefly bring to life. Why not say, of that I shall make my theater?