Here’s a riddle: What’s happy and sad and missing from live theatre? The answer is both simple and complicated.
As an aspiring playwright, I watch as many theater performances as I can. Now that I live in a new city that has a thriving arts community, I have already listened to live symphonies and seen live musicals and plays.
I could rent the movie version instead or watch a taped version of a live performance. I must confess that my pocketbook is pleading that we go that route.
But there’s a genuine quality I get as a viewer when I attend a live performance. I see the emotions as unedited, raw expressions right before my eyes. I see how a playwright incorporates the limited use of a stage to develop a scene. I see how the writer crafts characters through a complex story arc.
It’s Story Time
A few months ago, I watched the 80s film version of the famous Off-Broadway play Little Shop of Horrors and loved it. So when I heard that a local theatre in town was performing it, I bought tickets the first day I was free.
I loved the film’s interpretation of the musical, so I knew that the musical live had to be even better. Just like a reader who always thinks the book is better than the movie, I had high expectations.
And for the most part, I was impressed. The cast sang with phenomenal voices. The production made full use of the stage. I laughed at many dialogue quips. The musical even had numbers not featured in the film.
But I came to see the character of Audrey. Even with her squeaky voice and blonde wig, I find her character surprisingly deep even with the superficial quirks. I wanted to see how this production would capture that live.
She pulled my heartstrings with her first solo song. While everyone laughed at the gimmicks within the lyrics of “Somewhere That’s Green,” I focused on her expressions and how she sang the words. The song is severely depressing, because you know she’s never going to get her suburban dream. By her final paused, quivering notes, my face was streaming with tears.
Yes, the best of comedies make me cry like a baby.
Seconds after applause, all the feels vanished. That’s because her character left the scene with her arms flailing in the air to get us to laugh again.
But then she kept doing it. Every time she left the shop or the stage, she’d pause at the door, heavily sigh, then skitter offstage with her arms moving in a dreamlike, damsel-in-distress way.
(I won’t even get into my disappointment of how she didn’t even try to hit the epic notes in “Suddenly Seymour.”)
I sighed. Is theatre still stuck in this rut?
TL;DR. Get To The Point
The beauty of the comedy is that they’re often the most tragic stories. The charm of dramas is that many can have the funniest scenes.
Just look at Shakespeare’s tragedies. If the scripts were performed correctly, they’d have the audience rolling on the floor laughing during some scenes.
Of course dramas and comedies need to have a balance of serious and silly moments. The stories wouldn’t be very believable if they were 100% one way or the other.
But that’s not what upsets me.
I’m going to lose a lot of theatre friends by saying this, but I’m going to say it anyways. And I’m not talking just about the actors. The playwrights, directors, producers, and everyone else off- or on-stage are responsible for this.
Theatre is often the display of melodrama, not drama or comedy.
Characters are often interpreted as exaggerations of stereotypes, not as real people. So they’re portrayed through dialogue and action as over-the-top parodies. The production only scratches the surface of the real potential behind every character.
That’s a disservice to the art of theatre. The play is supposed to be a representation of real life. But how can it represent our world if it makes a mockery of it?
I get stretching a few character traits to make a point. It’s when the traits are portrayed so cartoonish that it’s obvious no one really acts like that.
Can’t characters be funny or serious without being ridiculous?
Think about the funniest people you know (not performers) in your life. How heavily does their humor rely on exaggeration?
Probably not that much. Unless slapstick humor is your thing.
(And the most melodramatic people in our lives don’t seem to know that they’re being melodramatic. Oh, the irony.)
How about your favorite comedians? Often their best material is just stating the obvious of what we do or how we think.
They know that honesty can be a hoot.
Don’t get me wrong. I came to see a comedy, so I wanted my funny bone to be tickled. I’m just not going to laugh if you’re not going to let the characters be real.
There’s Something We Can Do About It
This is something we need to think about as writers and playwrights. While we can only control so much of what actually happens during the production of the play, we still have control to develop the characters correctly that it would be hard to ignore their realness.
It’s up to us to give characters the depth they deserve.