All Over Creation: The Same but Different

Reruns on TV may be the same old thing, but onstage they show us something new

Double vision: Martin Burke in Fully Committed then (inset) and now
Double vision: Martin Burke in Fully Committed then (inset) and now
Photos courtesy of Kirk R. Tuck

Summer – it's always been the season of dread for the TV junkie in me. That's when new episodes from all the series dry up, and the cathode-ray landscape becomes a Sahara of reruns. Been there, seen that.

Although that's provided welcome incentive to get off the sofa and go catch some live drama, this past weekend Austin theatre looked to be taking its cue from the tube. All three productions I attended were reruns – each produced previously by the same theatre company, with the same director and same leading performer(s).

Now, remounts of stage productions are not unheard of in these parts – holiday hits like A Christmas Carol and The Santaland Diaries routinely get regifted December after December – but a cluster in late summer is something new, and it arrives as our theatre scene is seeing more reruns than ever. In just the past year, Austin Shakespeare revisited Hamlet, Hyde Park Theatre remounted Marion Bridge, Zach Theatre returned to The Laramie Project, Shrewd Productions revived MilkMilkLemonade, UpRise! Productions and Vortex Repertory brought back For Colored Girls Who Have Considered Suicide When the Rainbow Is Enuf, and Summer Stock Austin reprised A Year With Frog and Toad. That's on top of last week's trio: Glass Half Full Theatre's FupDuck, Tongue and Groove Theatre's Seven Wonders of the World (Plus One), and Zach Theatre's Fully Committed.

It'd be one thing if all those shows were paid for and in the can the way series episodes are, needing nothing but a flip of a switch for the original production to go back before the public, but theatre companies don't have it that easy. Any stage rerun requires the same resources and energy that the original production did – sometimes more. Even if costumes or sets have been preserved, casts have to be reassembled and rehearsed, crews have to move the sets in place and hang the lights, and everyone has to show up at the theatre every time the show is to be performed and make it happen all over again. It isn't simply re-running a show; it's re-building it, which demands something more than a casual impulse to revisit a production that somebody liked or plug a hole in the schedule with a known commodity. It needs the conviction that a show that was a hit before can be a hit again; or that one that wasn't a hit could be one if it were remounted and found its audience; or that a show that was timely when originally staged has developed a new resonance that should be explored today; or that a show just wasn't done, but it could be if the artists had a chance to dig a little deeper and mine more from it.

That's the most significant thing distinguishing reruns in theatre from their brethren on TV: They may replay the same story, told the same way by the same creative personnel, but they're not frozen the way that work on film or tape is. They're the same, but they're invariably different. It's the nature of the art form, which changes from performance to performance, the experience perpetually being altered, however subtly, by the efforts of the actors, the mood of the audience, and the energy exchanged between the two.

And if that's true within the run of a production, from one night to the next, how much more true must it be from one run to the next, when months or years may have passed between performances. Martin Burke is a very gifted actor and a very consistent one, especially in finding a character's heart in a heartbeat and expressing it with an unconstrained exuberance that gets the laugh right where it belongs time and time again. I have no doubt that much of what I guffawed at in Zach's current staging of Fully Committed is just what I guffawed at when I saw Burke do it in 2003. I could recognize certain choices and hear echoes of his earlier delivery. But I was also struck by a difference in the way he shifted among the 40 or so characters he's required to play; the lightning-flash transitions are now more confident and crisp – masterful in the way that comes with an actor's growth over nine years. That informed this rerun, as it does all such in the theatre. Time changes us, and that shapes and shades what an artist does onstage and how we perceive it from the house. When the artist is reworking material we've seen before, we have a chance to take the measure of time's alterations.

That's why I didn't mind seeing all reruns in the theatre last week and don't dread that more may be coming. They offer something new in the old, and in summer or any season, I'll gladly tune them in.

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