While sitting in the audience of a production of “Twelfth Night” during a particularly hilarious scene, I saw a hand creep into my field of vision. The hand was inviting me to come with it onto the stage and a jolt of fear ran through my body. Though dubious, I ultimately decided to follow its command and found myself on the stage dancing and singing with two of the main characters in the play. When I didn’t think it could get any more bizarre, the ushers started running through the aisles and onto the stage with boxes of pizza. This, my friends, is the magic of live theater.
As essentially an English major I’ve read a lot of classic plays. Even if you are not cursed with a literature class every semester you’ve probably taken at least one, or remember having to read some plays in your high school English classes. And, as you’ll recall, it’s pretty hard to get into Shakespeare when you’re listening to a teacher you probably don’t like all that much talk about major themes in the least interesting way possible. Unfortunately, that is the way most of us are exposed to great plays rather than seeing them on stage as they were meant to be. And without that opportunity, some never get to experience the way a production can breathe new life into something everyone thought they knew inside and out and make you experience something entirely new, like two plays I have seen recently.
The first was an ArtsEmerson production of “Twelfth Night.” I went into this play not realizing how different it could be from my experience of reading it out loud in my high school Shakespeare class. It was almost as if it was an entirely new play despite them using the same words my classmates and I had stammered out two years before. There was no real set to this production, just a few musical instruments placed in a semi-circle around the stage. These instruments were used throughout the play because there were many random outbreaks of rock music when the characters would suddenly stop and dance for a while in between monologues, giving this production an entirely different atmosphere than that expected of a Shakespeare play.
All the characters except for Sir Toby Belch, the comic relief of the play, were in casual contemporary clothing. This made everything Toby (who was in period garb) did a lot funnier and all of the other characters much more accessible to the audience. The audience participation also added a new dimension to the play. For example, the main character, Viola, decides she must dress up as a man and asks the audience if anyone has a men’s jacket or hat that she could borrow. She was then thrown a men’s hoodie and a beanie that served as her costume for the rest of the show. Another great moment was during one of the play’s opening scenes. The characters threw balls back and forth with the audience and caught them on velcro joker hats. This production made Shakespeare entertaining in a way that some people don’t believe it can be.
Recently, I also saw a one woman production of three short Samuel Beckett plays: “Not I,” “Footfalls,” and “Rockaby.” Though these are not plays that are usually read in English classes, some of his other work is much more popular such as “Waiting for Godot” and “Endgame.” This production in particular disoriented the audience, because the entire 55 minute performance is a blackout. Every light in the theater is off, including the exit signs and the actress is the only thing lit up.
In the first monologue, “Not I,” all the audience can see is the actress’ mouth floating around while she babbles her speech so fast it’s almost incoherent. This use of blackout added a very intense element to the production. In the words of an audience member, “the words are everything” because in the darkness all you have to focus on is the words. It was an extremely intense experience that I could could never have gotten from just reading these plays.
Plays seem to be in a unique position to be so incredibly enhanced by their productions. Live theater has the opportunity to bring something new to every performance because it interacts live with the audience. “Twelfth Night” pulled the audience right on stage. The darkness of the Beckett plays allowed the audience to in some ways become alienated and unified in others. No one can see anyone else–so if anyone coughs it’s shocking and disruptive–but on the other hand you feel unified by such an intense experience. As well as many other aspects of performances such as the use of music when you wouldn’t expect it, unusual costumes, or a unique lighting choice can mean a world of difference to how you experience a play. Both of these plays show how small elements of a production can turn words on a page into something entirely new.