Rock and Rules (Blog Post #8)

You know, man. . .theater and music, they’re all a part of art. And for some reason, everyone always thinks they have to put labels and rules on art. Curiosity is one thing. Trying to explain the world, is one thing. But human beings go too far sometimes, take things to extremes. Trying to tell everyone that one way is always right and another way is all wrong is completely different. These songs playing, for example—they’re all just fun and care-free, they exist for us to enjoy them. But some songs are out to make a point. They’re didactic. They’re trying to tell us how to feel and what to think, what’s right, what’s wrong, and what we should do. And you know, that’s not really a bad thing. But some people take it too far. Take the Italian critics of the Renaissance, for instance. These guys stuck hardcore to their neoclassical ideals. Instead of just trying to understand and explain theater of their time, they wrote down rules and literally attacked productions that didn’t adhere to them. Instead of going out there and making good art themselves, these fat cats sat around and tried to tell others what was good and what wasn’t.

First off, they said all theater should teach a lesson and tell the audience what to think, force-feeding a theme down their throats. They were also obsessed with “verisimilitude” which is just a fancy name for “realism.” And boy, did they get specific. Time was a big deal to them, and they felt that the action of the play couldn’t exceed 24 hours without becoming too unrealistic. Extremists cut that time down to 12 hours, or even 2 hours for the hard-core believers (I guess they would have loved the TV show “24”). They also had some vague rules about keeping the actions within the same “place” but that was open somewhat to interpretation. Stuff could be happening in different areas of the same city, or be restricted to the events happening in one room of one house. Don’t try any of that multiple locations crap though, or you’ll have to watch your back! (What’s this, related events taking place in multiple locations? Look out, we’ve got a bad ass up in here!) They also promoted unity of action, which just means it had to follow one simple plot revolving around the same small group of characters. Yeah, right, because multiple complex things happening to different places and to different people can’t affect each other. Last time I checked, life is complicated.

 

Works Cited

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre. 6th Edition. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 151-155. Print.

Parallel Stages: English Renaissance and Spanish Golden Age Theater (Blog Post #10)

When it comes to the structure of theater, both socially and physically, the English and the Spanish had eerily similar traditions in the 16th-17th centuries. Take for example, the playhouses themselves: both of these regions favored the outdoor courtyard theaters (think of the Adams outdoor theater in Cedar City). The stages were generally raised platforms; seating was on 3 sides of the stage, with balcony seating on each side. The fourth side behind the stage usually had openings or doors to enter and exit from, and often a second level balcony behind it for added acting levels. The Spanish called the buildings “corrales,” and like the open air theaters of the English Elizabethan era, they also had a yard similar to the English pit (the open area between the seating and the stage). And, as with every other culture, both were sexists and had strict regulations and expectations for any women attending. The English required women to attend the theater with a male escort to avoid being seen as a prostitute, and the Spanish required women to sit in a guarded area at the back of the theater called the “cazuela.” Yep, they had a separate entrance and everything. Both theaters vended food, although the Spanish had an actual refreshment stands (sort of like a modern concessions stand in a movie theater) located to one side of the main entrance.

The Spanish and English also had a lot of similarities when it came to running the theaters. Golden Age actors of Spain acted in troupes just as Elizabethan English actors, with up to 20 actors in a single troupe. Most were “Sharing companies” where each actor involved has a shareholder who invested in the productions and got a split of the profits. The Spanish did have their differences, though. For example, some of their companies were run by a single manager. They would contract actors, and act as producer, stage manager, and director. The Spanish also had different traditions regarding women on the stage. Although their troupes often included women, which was unheard of in England, they still had harsh restrictions in order to limit their involvement. They were technically, “legally” allowed to perform from 1587-1596; when they were allowed to perform again in 1599, only wives or daughters of male company members were permitted on stage, and cross dressing was banned. Keep in mind, not long before, cross dressing had been considered more acceptable than allowing women on-stage. Suffice it to say men were morons on both sides of the English Channel.

 

Works Cited

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre. 6th Edition. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 201-207. Print.

Italian Pop Culture (Blog Post #7)

“Comedia del Arte”. . . sounds a little artsy-fartsy, doesn’t it? Fancy, high-brow, hoity-toity theater crap that may only be good for putting you to sleep, right? Well, maybe not. Unpronounceable names do not a boring entertainment make. I’m aware that most or maybe even all of you have never even been to the theater. Personally, I say you don’t know what you’re missing, but that’s just me. Anyway, I’d be willing to bet that every single one of you have viewed your fair share of television and movies. Well, Commedia del ‘arte wasn’t quite like modern theater productions. It was really more of a popular art form, like tv or movies, than the “high art” most people view it as today.

Commedia originated in Italy as a popular art form, and was performed by troupes of travelling performers. The plays they staged were almost always comedies. Rather than using a memorized script, they followed a basic storyline but improvised all of the dialogue and actions. For those of you wondering how the hell they managed to pull that off, keep this in mind: these actors played the same role over, and over, and over–seriously, for pretty much their whole life.

Just imagine the world if every actor had the characterizing abilities of Owen Wilson, Vince Vaughn, and Adam Sandler—sure, they’re funny, but they are only physically capable of playing the same character in every single film they’re in. (Seriously, why do they even bother giving them new names in each movie?) This was called “stock characters,” and most troupes followed the same basic guidelines and used the same set of archetypes. Without the distraction of trying to always “get into the mindset of the character” actors were able to concentrate more on the improve part of performing, spontaneously spouting out appropriate dialogue to suit the action of the play.

The characters also had universally recognizable costumes they wore again and again, including full face masks with exaggerated features. (It’s similar to how internet “rage” comics use the same grotesque cartoon faces to express certain emotions in a humorous way.) Common characters included:

Pantalone: Gripey old gas-bag always cock-blocking the inamorata.

Dottore: Nosy neighbor extraordinaire, usually a wealthy, friendly old doctor.

Capitano: Braggy, athletic scumbag.

Arlecchino: Witty, clownish servant.

Inamoratas: The two young idiots in love. They have to look pretty, so they didn’t have to wear masks.

Works Cited

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre. 6th Edition. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 126-151. Print.

Taking a “Q” from the Avenue

 

Since it’s fresh on my mind and relevant to the readings for this post, I thought I might draw some parallels between the performance of Avenue Q at the Babcock theater at the University of Utah (because of its use of puppetry) and the puppetry traditions of Asian theater.

Puppet shows are an interesting genre of performance art. Art in general is a representation of life, mimicking and re-interpreting it in a new form. Performing art is no exception, and replacing the actors with animated objects removes the element of reality even further. By doing so, it grants liberty to present things in a way that might be limited in the traditional methods of performance. The use of puppets seem to remove responsibility from the message being conveyed. It’s so easy to say, “Don’t look at me. It’s not me saying this, it’s the puppet.” Like a young child playing with dolls or action figures and role-playing through them, the puppets seem to be a safe way to act things and “pretend” without too much commitment.  Avenue Q fully takes advantage of this, with everything from a crazy nude sex scene (which, when performed by puppets, seems much less erotic than one performed by real actors, even if it had been significantly less explicit) to songs and jokes that try to get touchy subjects like homosexuality and racism out into the air in a light-hearted way. And, even in the most R-rated moments, the puppets still convey a very innocent and safe atmosphere.

Experiencing that performance tonight gave me that insight into the appeal of this art form, and why it survived, even if only in a small way, for so long and in so many cultures. Troupes still exist in as many as 20 countries in Asia and in several different forms. Wayang kulit, for example, is shadow puppetry using flat leather puppets projecting shadows from behind onto a lit screen. Wayang golek was another tradition out of Indonesia using wooden dolls controlled by wooden rods and elaborately costumed. Illustrations and photographs reveal another feature of puppetry that has stood the test of time: stylization. As with most artists, purveyors of the art of puppetry have always sought to re-imagine and recreate human and natural forms in new ways; ways that might be idealized, exaggerated for emphasis, or distorted to convey characteristics in a hyperbolic manner. Whatever the purpose, whether to display the current ideal of beauty in a world where it is ever-changing, or to exaggerate and clearly demonstrate characteristics, puppetry lends itself to very strong choices of stylizing any artist can appreciate.

Works Cited

Avenue Q. By Robert Lopez. Babcock Theatre, Salt Lake City. 14 Nov. 2013. Performance.

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre. 6th Edition. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 77-101. Print.

A Crash Course on Cycle Plays (Blog Post #5)

If there’s one thing you need to remember about theater in the early medieval age it was the cycle plays. Cycle plays were also called “mystery plays,” but don’t be fooled; these were not the classic “who-dunnit” crime-solving mysteries that might come to mind. Instead, they re-enacted biblical stories or those of the lives of saints, in a sequence of several short pieces. They were often performed as part of the festival of Corpus Christi or other times during the warmer months of the year.

There were several distinguishing elements of cycle plays that made them ideal for appealing to the general public. They were written in vernacular language, or the language of the common people, rather than Latin. This was a big change from most religious ceremonies, since most songs, chants, and rituals were in Latin, including the texts of the bible itself. These plays made biblical stories and morals more accessible to the general public. They were also made comedic and anachronistic, meaning they included things that were historically out of place. An example would be contemporary costumes in a play set 1000 years in the past. This was meant to make the characters more relatable, letting them see the characters as real people rather than some distant, mysterious beings from another time.

More than anything, though, the mystery plays appealed to common audiences by adding elements of spectacle into them. Most pageants even hired a secrets master, the modern equivalent of a special effects coordinator, to oversee special effects (or “secrets”) used in productions. Mechanical effects, such as flying in celestial beings or letting one disappear through a trap door, were widely used. Even lighting was utilized for a “halo effect” by bouncing light off a shiny surface onto the face of an actor. Fire effects and fireworks were also popular additions to the “hell mouth” used in almost every set.

Speaking of set, there’s one other aspect of cycle plays that is fundamentally unique; their staging. Rather than using a stage with scenery elements that change to adapt the same location to represent another, they used what was called “mansions”. This meant that every location used was represented by a small, scaled-down “mansion” or structure that represents one location, and each mansion is visible to the audience at any given time. Typically, Hell is on one end, Paradise on the other, with several other places in between. When the action of the story changes locations, the actors move to that location instead of the scenery coming to them.

 

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre. 6th Edition. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 103-227. Print.

When in Rome (Blog Post 3)

It’s true that Roman theater was very heavily influenced by Greek theater in nearly aspect. The subject matter, the dramatic styling, the architecture—all of these traced their roots back to the Greeks. But Greece was not the only other player on the field. During the Golden Age of Rome, at the height of its wealth, power, and influence in Western (and sometimes even Eastern) culture, Roman was at the center of the crossroads to everywhere else in the Empire. Rather than clinging to one tradition and one way of doing things, Romans soaked up a number of influences, tested them out, and regurgitated their own new way of doing things. Theater and popular entertainments were no exception.

One new spin they put on theatrical practices was how they ran the show. A government official ran the festivals and hired several companies to fill the bill. And, within each company, was the Dominus—he was the head honcho of the troupe, and would hire other actors, crunch numbers, acquire scripts, costumes, and was often the lead role as well. Imagine the colossal job of taking on the job of lead actor, producer, stage manager, and technical director all rolled into one! The troupes also usually consisted of 6 male members, a step forward from the Greek tradition of only having 3 actors.

The theater buildings themselves also differed from their Greek predecessors. Although mainly modeled after Greek theaters, the main difference was that these structures , although often temporary, were free standing structures rather than ones carved out of hillsides. They were often larger than Roman theaters, able to seat up to 25,000 spectators, and took on a semi-circular form instead of the traditional Greek circular orchestra. The orchestra was rarely used for performance as it was for the Greeks; it was reserved for seating of VIPs or flooded for sea battles. The three primary structural elements of the Greek theater, although with a new Roman twist, were still implemented: the scaena, the orchestra, and the theatron. The Roman scaena was quite different from the Greek; it was larger, usually 2-3 stories high, very elaborate, and usually included awnings to protect actors.

 

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre. 6th Edition. New York City: McGraw-Hill, 2012. 66-74. Print.

The Roman Theatrical Experiment (Blog Post #2)

The theatrical tradition of Rome did not spontaneously evolve. Rather, it was product of several components blended together into a compound. At the height of the Roman Empire, Rome was the central hub of several other nations, which exchanged goods, ideas, and culture. It retained aspects that were successful in it’s prospective region and time, while removing less profitable traditions. Those which were a success are as follows:

  • Comedy: the practical nature of Rome preferred popular entertainments and comedies over highbrow entertainment. A favorite was domestic farce, a new breed of entertainment that is still popular today.
  • Etruscan festivals: components of festivals derived from the culture of Etruria, a region located north-west of Rome, were incorporated into Roman culture. Facets include combat sports, singing, dancing, music, juggling, and other such entertainments. Comedic improvisations implemented into Etruscan marriage/fertility rites also influenced Roman Comedy.
  • Atellan Farce: comedic stylings derived from Greek performance traditions. Characteristics include: domestic subject matter, improvisation, stock characters bearing masks, and satirization of pastoral characters.
  • Greek Theater: The primary source of influence on the diverse Roman tradition of theater. Romans maintained a tradition rather than improving or further developing theater. Wealth of the Roman Empire led to an increase in leisure time and money to spend on it. Theater became available during festivals throughout the year.
  • Fabula palliatia: This genus is a style of comedy is based off of Greek subjects. The Fabula togata, which were comedies derived from Roman subjects, were not as popular, and natural selection eliminated any existing plays within its class. Successful mutations to form the new Fabula pallatia included removing the chorus, development of musical accompianiment, heavy use of eavesdropping, and standardizing a common street for setting.

The primary instegators of these new trends was popular playwright, Plautus.

  • Plautus: A Roman playwright native to Umbria, who lived from 254-184 BCE. Initially a performer, he later began writing in the style of New Greek Comedy. Aproximately 45 plays are credited to his name, with twenty full plays surviving. Developed the “braggart soldier” stock character stereotype. Credits include The Merchant, The Carthaginians, The Rope, Casina, The Pot of Gold, The Captives, The Haunted House, The Churl, The Girl from Persia, and The Menaechmi.

Works Cited:

Wilson, Edwin, and Alvin Goldfarb. Living Theatre: History of the Theatre. Boston, MA: McGraw-Hill, 2008. Print