The Very Spring and Root

An engineer's adventures in education (and other musings).

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On the crowd dynamics of tragical-comical-historicals.

Theatre by nature is a nebulous beast. It is a living thing, changing and morphing every night. The same actors, the same audience, the same script, but a different night — with different energy, different perspectives, different moods that vary in us humans minute by minute — it can be a totally different show each night.

It’s been a fantastic second weekend of an eight-show run of WITTENBERG, by David Davalos, which I had an exceptionally good time producing and directing.  I expected from the outset a variety of responses to this simultaneously witty, serious, absurd, literary, deeply spiritual, and borderline-blasphemous production… however, the last two shows in particular have been remarkable studies in contrast.

Saturday night: packed house (only one seat left), vigorous energy from the actors, rollicking laughter from the crowd (even at the profoundly nerdy parts), and the general euphoria that pervades everything when you are ON FIRE and know it. The kind of show that everyone remembers was exhilarating but it seems very hard to reconstruct in detail.

This evening: fairly sparse crowd (competing with the California Poppy Festival), excellently acted show, fine sense of rhythm…. but the audience was just DEAD. I mean, set aside the brainy allusions and witty wordplay, even the poop jokes and sex puppets fell on light smirks at best. (Though for the record, if one woman storms out at intermission indignant that I would produce such filth on a Sunday, while another is thanking me for renewing her faith, I think I’ve done my job.) 

I have to confess, despite thirteen years of theatre, I still haven’t figured out why the reaction of whole crowds to some plays just works like that. I have a few theories:

  1. Especially in subtle comedies, where the humor is beneath the surface (or the humor lies in the fact that the characters are being dead serious about something perfectly ridiculous), sometimes people aren’t sure if its OK to laugh? In large crowds, you’re more likely to have that one person who just can’t contain it — the one who lets everyone else know by his or her unabashed giggling that it’s ok to… well, unclench.
  2. With the exception of a few Old Souls out there, maybe we’re so used to media being cleanly packaged for us these days: THIS is a teen comedy, THAT is a high-brow thriller, and OVER THERE is a sappy tearjerker. When ideas come in layers, perhaps we are simply unprepared to respond to a play that juxtaposes a plea for individual spiritual renewal with tongue-in-cheek commentary on Friedrich Nietzsche with mockery of famous Shakespearean actors (in iambic pentameter no less) with Martin Luther’s ecstatic relief after a long bout of constipation is explosively ended? 
  3. Or… Maybe I and my friends are just too nerdy. I realize that its unreasonable to expect that the general population will find a parody of Kant and a dig at Kenneth Branagh hilarious. But it’s not all that level of nerdy, far from it. I mean really, two hours of DEAD SILENCE right after a night in which I was certain half the room was about to PEE THEIR PANTS? 

Perhaps some combination of the above and other things I haven’t thought of. Hmm…

In any case, I’m very pleased with the production and how the run has been on the whole. The actors have been exceptionally captivating to watch in their approach to their characterization and interplay with each other. The technical design is beautiful and clever, and I really have to give the design team props for that. This has been a fantastic production to call my last in the valley.

If you’re local, two more chances to catch it. And if you come and don’t know which way you should react… just pick one and go with it. This is theatre. We laugh, we cry, we scream, we love, which are all choices just like the choices and actor makes on stage moment to moment. But above all we offer a window into the human condition, a window that cannot open unless you open yourself to it. 

In other words, maybe what I’m trying to say is that if you’re ever unsure, in theatre or in general, embrace it… and take a leap of faith.

There are a few songs in WITTENBERG which Dr. Faustus sings, and I’ve given him the direction to make it as fantastically awful as possible. I want the audience cringing at the memory of every epic-fail kareoke moment they have experienced.

This truly painful version of “O Holy Night” is what I gave him as an example. Listen all the way through… if you can.

I’m really pleased with how the lighting came out for WITTENBERG. Thanks to Jessica for doing such a great job on the design given my crazy requirements. The interplay between the different switches actually gets pretty complex, getting used in various combinations to achieve the desired effect for a particular scene. 

If you want to see it in full glory, come see the show!