(Based on questions from HowlRound on a video viewable here.)
Every day, behind our computerized glazes we see words. “Words, words, words” fill the visual cortexes of our brains constantly on the television, in books we read, even now as you stumble through the internet. Why do sports sell so well? They snap us from our digital screen stupors into a tactile world of muscle and physicality. Why do we fill the bleachers? To be impressed by virtuosic action. To see things that require real skills and serious rehearsal. There is no reason we can’t put these into theatre. How can we put this dynamic sense of visual poetry and possibility into theatre? We must include more than just the words we hear read aloud on stage and include other senses that have laid dormant.
In his book Le Corpse Poetique, Jacques Lecoq, an athlete turned theatre practitioner, states “Tout bouge” (Everything moves). This is something I feel we have forgotten. I am not in any way arguing against the power of language, written or auditory, but when working with such poetic language as Shakespeare in this day and age, we need to create a visual poetry to match it. Our language includes visual, written, noises and the unseen emptiness of silence. Words are not the end of our language.
Our kids are now less likely to climb a tree as to watch a video on the internet or play a game on the computer. And the same is true for us, as your job is now less likely to include physical activity and more likely to leave your body, on an average day, behind the electric glow of a screen. (The average American adult now spends eight and a half hours per day behind a screen making the here and now interactions of theater more important now than ever.) To watch someone in a real, untelevised, kinetic moment: jumping, climbing, hanging, swinging or falling on stage is something that instantly awakens our bodies and takes us out of our online reality and into the here and now.
Let’s take a step from the old vaudeville tradition of juggling. Even more basic than that, let’s just go to throwing and catching. Why can you create so much life just by having an actor throw a prop to another actor who, as if by magic. . . as if they were not expecting it. . . and with precision last minute timing. . . catches it? Because even though everyone knows this moment has been rehearsed hundreds of times, in the moment the object is in the air, to the audience, just like in sports, anything can happen. There is the possibility that the object will not be caught and we love that moment of possibility. It is a moment with tons of potential energy, to steal a phrase from physics, and while the object is in the air we can’t help but hold our breath as nature takes its course.
At Seattle Children’s Theatre I was performing a routine on my unicycle, a tall unicycle with a chain and a gear while juggling knives on top of it. But during this particular performance right before I started to juggle I heard the audience gasping before feeling my brand new black converse sneaker tighten around my squishing foot. I looked down and saw what the audience had seen just a moment before me, my white shoelace had gotten tangled in the chain of the unicycle. Knowing this was not something I could ignore I turned it in to part of the shtick before snipping the shoelace and finally juggling the knives. The routine went even better than usual. The audience was thrilled and relieved. I still talk to people who remember it. Why? The knives were not sharp and a snipped shoelace is hardly “dangerous” in the real sense of it (even to a non-profit’s budget), but to the audience, they were seeing something athletic, someone with a skill negotiate a kinesthetic moment. Just like in sports, they were seeing something unpredictable. A live event in which anything could happen. A moment that snapped them into the illusive present.
This does not by any means mean that I am arguing that we should be out of control on stage. We will never have total control, but almost like a skilled soccer player fighting to keep control of the ball, we must similarly be fighting to take care of our audience and their experience.
The radio show RadioLab reinvented the language of radio for the modern audience with their “musical language” You can see Ira Glass talking about how they create this athletic possibility here. How can we create our own “musical language” or metaphor on stage? How can we keep up with the constantly changing aesthetics and metaphors of an online, sports centric world? By going as far from an online reality as possible into a physically engaging reality. We tune in to sports to see what happened in a moment that will never be repeated. Theater has the challenge of creating that same sense of once in a lifetime and repeating it eight times a week. A Contemporary Theater did this brilliantly with their updated Ramayana as did Peter and the Star Catcher and War Horse with Handspring’s puppetry, to name a few more examples.
How can we strive for this esthetic of imagination, escape,and wonder? We do not need incredible, sporty, strong, athletic actors to create a more athletic theatre, though it couldn’t hurt. We need to create a new visual poetry. An esthetic that does not rely on budget or expense for spectacle. From using puppets such as those imaginatively engineered at the Eugene O’Neill Theatre Center’s National Puppetry Conference to using ASL like the Oregon Shakespeare Festival’s brilliant casting and work with Howie Seago do so incredibly.
This physical aliveness and visual poetry is only powerful if it is helping to tell the simple story. When in service of the story it can create an urgency that makes the audience complicit to the story in ways they otherwise would not be.
In Romeo and Juliet at Arts on the Waterfront (a two actor version) we created rain by placing a two-liter water bottle upside down on the tip of an umbrella and created a Friar puppet by placing a black coat and hat on a hanger with the two actors animating it, each actor sliding a hand through an empty sleeve. Go ahead and steal these ideas. They are fun and easy.
Can’t afford puppets? Use a person as a giant bunraku puppet like I did with students at the University of Washington seen here. Steal this idea, too, and send me a video of what you make! Go one step further with it and one up me.
We should be explorers of the unknown. Not just explorers of what goes on in our mind and the text but physical explorers as well, explorers of timing and sets, and silence. Volume explorers. But, hey! We already have something that sports do not. We know that we all do better together. For me to win I know that you do not have to lose and we are all better off sharing and growing together. We are taught this so well in theatre. We work really hard for what we have and deserve it, but in the end it was someone else’s decision to cast us, produce us, publish us, or hire us and that is a huge gift we need to be incredibly grateful for. We just have to move, together.
Mickey Rowe is a graduate of the National Theater Institute at the Eugene O’Neill Theater Center (the 2010 Tony winner for regional theater) and a graduate of the University of Washington. Mickey has performed in eight productions with the Seattle Opera: Barber of Seville, Billy Budd, Tosca, Fallstaff, Turn of the Screw, Der Rosenkavalier, La Boheme and I Puritani; four with the Seattle Children’s Theater, the second largest professional theater for young audiences in the country: The Cat in the Hat, The Wizard of Oz, Night of the Living Dead and High School Musical; and has collaborated on and performed in world premiere productions at the Edinburgh International Festival Fringe and with the Washington Ensemble Theater. Mickey is a skilled stilt walker, unicyclest, juggler, tight rope walker, fire breather and trained puppeteer with extensive stage combat experience. Mickey’s directing and acting work can also be seen at Arts on the Waterfront. He can currently be seen playing and creating chaos with Bikes, Kites, and more in The Cat in the Hat at Seattle Children’s Theatre and will next be seen in A Prayer for Owen Meany at Book-It Repertory Theatre (And then La Boheme at Seattle Opera). (www.mickeyrowe.me)
Have you done something cool working beyond the text? Comment here and tell us about it!