Monday, April 28, 2014

Keeping It Moving

It’s not that I started musing on the art of keeping it moving during Bruce Hoogendorn’s funny and insightful Warts and All.* I’ve been grumbling about the need for shows to not hold up the action for some considerable time now.  Years, in fact.

But a couple of things triggered further reverie. One was Warts and All. The other was the sublime Sitkovetsky Trio in concert for Musica Viva.

In classical music there are pauses between the movements of a symphony or a concerto. It’s not over yet and everyone knows it but the pauses are always marked by discrete shifting in seats and dealing with a cough. Not, as a general rule, talking. It’s a pause but not the end. The instruments might get a little bit of adjusting but the thread is held.

The Sitkovetsky Trio signalled both the end of the movement and the end of the whole piece with particularly fine sweeping flourishes of the bow.  (This was particularly handy in the Carl Vine piece as it was new.) The audience, well trained in the conventions of the concert hall, responded with equal grace and did not let go of the line until the piece was properly finished.

Theatre can be rather different.

Now Warts and All certainly shows Hoogendoorn’s growing adroitness with a particular brand of wry local comedy.

Simon (Will Huang) is laid up with osteoarthritis of the knees at his granny’s house in Queensland, contemplating the ruin of a promising running career. He hasn’t done too well with year 12 in Canberra either, so he’s staying with his grandmother (Helen Vaughan-Roberts) while he regroups. Enter (via an impressive trick wardrobe) a truculent whistle blowing ghost of uncertain identity from the family’s past (Rob de Fries).

Grandma Margaret is trying to get Simon interested in family history so this is a helpful if alarming turn of events. Also alarming is the arrival of her overbearing cousin Alice (Oliver Baudert) and Kirsty  (Adellene Fitzsimmons), her granddaughter with eye rolling attitude. There are clearly family secrets and local historian Dotty (Elaine Noon) may know more than she’s letting on.

The twists in the plot were pleasingly not predictable and the dialogue was often snappily funny, particularly in the deft hands of Vaughan-Roberts and De Fries. Baudert did a bravura turn as Alice, Noon bumbled well as Dotty (the name tells all), Fitzsimmons was sharp as Kirsty and Huang made a likable Simon, in the end well on his way to a necessary resilience concerning life.

But staging needs to keep the audience focussed and the bugbear of the blackout, complete with long moments while stagehands in black reposition furniture and props persists round Canberra’s shows. Here the blackouts were many and threatened to hold up the action of what should have been be a swift comedy. 

The audience was being let off the hook to the point where some of my neighbours actually started conversations. Sotto voce to be sure and of course according to polite Western audience conventions they should not really have been doing it. But the blackouts were allowing that level of relaxation and a drop in audience energy. 

A shame because the play was funny and local and perceptive about the complications of families. 

Solutions? Keep it tight. Minimise what has to be shifted. Minimise what is on stage. Some shows use characters to move things. Some dress the stagehands in appropriate costume. I once saw a student Importance of Being Earnest where the set changes were choreographed and done with a flourish by the servants.  (Stage hands in costume. Now there’s a thought. But probably better in a musical.)

Above all, give some thought to minimalism when it comes to props and furniture. The long lists of both at the back of all of those French’s Acting Editions have much to answer for in forming ideas of how staging can be made to work and in any case are often based on a West End or Broadway premiere with resources like revolves and fly towers.

Start the next scene as soon as the previous one finishes. Think film. Think Shakespeare. If the action does require a snap black out then move on as fast as possible into what happens next, perhaps by putting it on another part of the stage. Use the lighting device of the cross fade to pull the audience’s attention elsewhere, preferably to where the next scene is starting. Anything to stop the action being held up. And anything to stop those in the audience who suddenly feel obliged to chat. 

(Upon which last point I was intrigued to find The Canberra Theatre has guides to theatre etiquette on its web site.

Of course if you go to foreign parts and sample some kinds of performance you will find all bets are off in terms of the above. Love the hill tribe shows in Chiang Mai where a piece will just suddenly stop dead for no apparent reason, leaving a couple of hundred Spanish, German, English and Australian tourists not knowing when to applaud. Or if.

The Sitkovetsky Trio was secure in the power of the concert hall’s conventions.  Warts and All was very secure in the writing and the acting but needed to do more with its staging by doing less. As for the hill tribe performers, I do not yet presume to know.

*Warts and All. Written and directed by Bruce Hoogendoorn. The Courtyard Studio, Canberra Theatre Centre. April 2-12 2014.

An update of links to recent Canberra Times reviews:
*Please note that Liza One Note in Forbidden Broadway was performed by Halimah Kyrgios. This was the reviewer’s error.

Alanna Maclean

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