The Virtues of Flexibility

Re-Imagining the Production Process

It was unlike any theatre I had ever seen, a temple to possibility, its playing space so flexible that it could accommodate tons of dirt, trees, or a tank. It could be configured into a big warehouse or an intimate salon. Pillars staggered throughout the space and lightweight beams that could be attached to them and stacked allowed it to be made wide and shallow, long and narrow, small and boxy. High ceilings allowed for objects to be hung and flown. A Paul Bunyan-sized door enabled objects as tall as trees to be trucked into the space, for horses, cars, bulldozers even, to carry materials into the space or move onstage as part of a production. The space could be loaded with earth or flooded with water. It was a theatre out of a dream. Only I didn't dream it. I saw it for real, with a number of other writers attending this year's convention of the American Theatre Critics Association in Dallas. We were given a tour of the facility, which sits in a field in a mostly undeveloped area of Addison, one of the many bedroom communities that dot the Metroplex. The Addison Center Theatre was developed by some area artists who began doing productions there in a small stone cottage on the same property as the current facility. In the one-room space, they pushed the limits of environmental staging, opening the doors to incorporate car headlights and the surrounding fields into a show, covering the floor with dirt, filling the room knee-deep with water. After some years, with support from city leaders and substantial income from the hotel/motel tax, they were given the opportunity to build their own theatre. They imagined every kind of show they might want to produce - small, gigantic, surreal - then designed a theatre flexible enough for them to stage those shows in it.

The experience of seeing the Addison was startling to me. As I looked over the space, my mind was ignited with ideas for its use: The Tempest on a real island surrounded by water. Waiting for Godot on a vast plain. Oklahoma with the audience in an honest-to-Tulsa cornfield. They weren't terribly original concepts, but they were new to me and they kept rushing into my brain. The room invigorated my thinking about space, an aspect of theatre to which I hadn't given much thought before, and what thinking I had done tended toward the conventional, making the most of standard boxy rooms with set entryways and traditional seating. Presented with a space which allowed for more possibilities, my mind made a creative leap and I began to conceive of approaches to work that might be more dynamic, more theatrical, more exciting than was my natural bent.

Since that visit, I've quite naturally been more interested in the use of space in stage productions and how incorporating more flexibility into local performance venues might push Austin theatre to a new level of creativity. But I've also begun thinking about how flexibility might be applied to other areas of theatre here, specifically to areas in which arts companies have suffered ongoing problems in the production process.

Austin theatre doesn't lack for ambition when it comes to choosing plays to produce. We love our Lears and Hamlets, our Threepenny Operas and Sweeney Todds, our The Importance of Being Earnests and Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Deads, and we stage them regularly. And why not? Such works are thrillingly theatrical, in their rich use of language and action, their rendering of indelible characters and sharp conflicts, in their exploration of ideas and communication of human emotion in all its colors. They represent the art at its peak and deserve to be done again and again.

What we run into again and again, however, are local productions that don't realize the rich dramatic or comedic potential of these ambitious theatrical works. Now, not managing a deeply moving Three Sisters or a riotous Tartuffe every time one stages one is not a situation unique to Austin; these works stymie great artists everywhere. But the thread that runs through many of the flawed productions of great plays locally is an ill fit of resources to material. We take these complex, very demanding works, and produce them with actors who cannot always make the text clear or whose emotional range is limited, with staging that does not always appear clearly thought through, and with costumes that are threadbare and sets that are slipshod.

The underlying causes of these problems vary from show to show. Sometimes actors seem to have been miscast. Other times, they appear suitable for the roles but look under-rehearsed. At times, the blocking or pace suggests the director didn't seriously study the text. Occasionally, sets and costumes look as if they might have been more polished if only there had been a little more time before opening. Often, they look as if they might have been more polished if only there had been a lot more money. The impression created by these productions, whether it is always the case or not, is that the artists involved did not allow themselves sufficient time and resources to do these plays justice.

Not all plays are created equal. Albee's Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf and Feydeau's A Flea in Her Ear are very different works and make very different demands on the companies that produce them, in the size of the cast, period setting, actors' facility with language, physicality, playing drama as opposed to comedy, and so on. What the theatre has developed, though, is a production process that treats every show as roughly the same. Directors give themselves several months to study a script; they hold two or three nights of auditions and cast most, if not all, roles from the actors who audition; the show is rehearsed generally four to six weeks; then it opens. Locally, that situation is compounded by the propensity of some companies - usually smaller ones, but not always - to stage every show on roughly the same budget, regardless of the shows' size or demands. It is as if we have begun to see the production process in the same way that we see most performance spaces: as something with certain specifications that we cannot alter and which must limit our creative approaches to a play's production.

While it's true that some limitations which can't be overcome will exist for every production (otherwise every actor in town would be making Equity-level wages for every show), Austin's stage companies have more freedom in the production process than they seem to think. Except for those companies with Equity affiliations (and there are relatively few of those locally), there are no rules regarding the ways in which companies can cast shows, no restrictions on how many weeks a production may be in rehearsal. Even for Equity companies, there are no laws dictating how long a director may study a play before rehearsals begin or in which season a certain script must be produced. Producers and artists are in control of these areas and can make adjustments in them if they so choose. Too often, they have not because something - the desire to do a show at a certain time because it's hot commercially or a particular space is only available then or they are opposed to pre-casting or holding extra auditions or they can't afford renting rehearsal space for more than four weeks or better costumes - something is acting as a wall or walls that's cramping their ability to produce the best work they can.

What Austin theatre lacks is a sense of how to break down those walls and realize these plays to their full potential. We need to put ourselves in an Addison for the production process, a mental space in which we have the freedom to do anything we can imagine. Take three months to rehearse Julius Caesar? Have the resources to build a dark, richly paneled set for A Doll House? Get the best actress in Austin (fill in the blank yourself) to play Medea? It's possible in this space, and the importan0t thing about being there and opening yourself up to any and all possibilities is that it sparks those creative impulses toward the dynamic and theatrical, and that puts you closer to the greatness at the heart of the play you seek to realize in all its glory.

Once you have envisioned a dream production, it may be that the old throw-the-show-up-in-four-weeks-with-whatever-we've-got won't work for you. And it shouldn't. Why do a half-assed production of Hamlet? Who does it serve? Not the actors, not the audience, not the play. We should be envisioning the best productions possible, then finding ways to get as much of those visionary productions realized onstage as possible. If it's Hamlet, what about casting the title role three months before formal rehearsals start, with the director and actor working one-on-one on the text? What about stretching the rehearsal period, beginning not with blocking but with a week of table work, just talking through the play with the cast so that everyone understands the work on the same level? What about adding extra time into the load-in to allow for set and costume construction? What about adding a dialogue coach or a fight choreographer or a dramaturg?

It's no use crying "poor me" on this one, begging off by saying "we don't have the resources to rehearse for six weeks or to costume everyone in period clothing or to hire extra personnel." No one is forcing anyone to take on the masterworks of the theatre. They are done, ostensibly, because artists have a passion to do them. If that is truly the case and artists here want to produce them in a way that does justice to them, then they need to consider what that will take, everything that will take. And if the cost is too great for them to produce the work at one time, they should wait until they can get the resources together. The great thing about these plays is they aren't going anywhere. They've been around for years, often centuries, and they will still be here in a month or six months or six years.

Theatre has always been, and always will be, an arena of limited resources. But it is founded on imagination, and we may find that the best way to get beyond the limitations that restrict us in the production process is to apply the same imagination to it that we do to the art. Some companies are already starting to do that: the Zachary Scott Theatre Center, which gave set designer Christopher McCollum extra time to build the posh London residence for The Sisters Rosensweig; the Austin Shakespeare Festival, where director Noel Koran scheduled a seven-week rehearsal period for the upcoming Twelfth Night; Troupe Texas and Root Wy'mn and Anarchy Productions, all of which use minimalism to thrilling theatrical effect. The evidence is there. See for yourself what can come from a little flexibility. n

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