Book ReviewsTom Williams

Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age

By Anne Nicholson Weber
Publisher by Routledge Taylor & Francis Group

270 Madison Avenue
New York, NY 10016
ISBN 0-87830-186-0
Copyright 2006
176 pages in trade paperback $22.95
Nonfiction: Theatre oriented

Terrific new volume deftly defines contemporary theatre’s place in the 21st Century

Upstaged: Making Theatre in the Media Age

Evanston resident and Yale law graduate, Anne Nicholson Weber has sought answers concerning the effects of film and TV on theatre. She has interviewed 24 theatre/film/TV experts allowing them to express in their own words: “How can theatre thrive in a culture dominated by film and television?”

The premise: “Ever since the introduction of the “talkies” in the 1920’s and television in the 1950’s, live theatre has struggled for its place in a culture increasingly dominated by the screen. How does that dominate affect individual theatre artists and theatrical movements? How does it change what audiences seek from the theatre? What, in the end, is the role of live theatre in our media-saturated culture?”

For a guy who sees over 300 plays per year and one who also loves film, Anne Weber’s book is a fascinating and illuminating work. I learn much by reading this collection of interviews. Weber is a master of rapport and interviewing as she got 24 diverse theatre folks to articulate their thoughts about this important subject. She sought out stage actors, playwrights, theatre directors and others including local Chicago experts Robert Falls (from Goodman Theater) and Martha Lavey (from Steppenwolf Theatre). Major world figures such as Nicholas Hytner, Peter Hall, Frank Rich, Julie Taymor and Tony Kushner gave Weber interviews, mostly live face-to-face.

Anne Weber’s methodology: tape the interview and have it transcribed. Next she did edits then she sent the transcription to each person so they could edit, expunge, rewrite and/or amplify their words. This was a brave and wise strategy which, in effect, got the 24 to write her an essay about their passionate views on the role of theatre in a media age. The result is a distinctly pro-theatre discourse that renews and energizes us theatre fanatics.

This book is an easy read as it contains insights into the place of live theatre in the 21st Century. Each of the 24 artist’s candor and keen observations are succinctly outlined as they relate their take on the difference between film, TV and live theatre. This work isn’t a film or TV bashing piece, rather it is a primer on how each affects the other and how actors, directors and writers approach each media. The realities and expectations of audiences are thoroughly examined.

Anne Weber’s keen judgment on whom to interview produced an impressive panel of world class artists. Here is a list of this group and a few quotes to tantalize you:

Nicholas Hytner —artistic director of Britain’s National Theatre

“…there is something special about being in the same room as the people who are telling you the story…”

“…a play, every time it’s performed, is a succession of unexpected surprises to everybody involved.”

Wallace Shawn —playwright and actor

‘…the extremes of human feelings and passion really don’t come off too well on film…”

Simon Callow —British actor, director, and writer

“The point about acting on the stage is that it entails—no matter how small the auditorium—an act of projection.”

“My theory is that theatre is like a zoo. You go to see extraordinary people…”

“In theatre, the audience is 50 percent of the experience.”

Martha Lavey —artistic director at Steppenwolf Theatre

“I don’t know that it’s possible to make a living working exclusively as a stage actor.”

“I like Chicago acting a lot better than New York acting.”

On the Steppenwolf Style:

(influenced by John Cassavetes’ films)— “to achieve that level of daring and bravado and realism and just take the gloves off…” “passion and willingness to connect” (with the audience).

Malkovich: “The place where you can’t lie is on stage. You can’t edit a performance together.”

Frank Rich —columnist, editor and chief drama critic for the New York Times

“Broadway has become a theme park…audiences (mostly tourists) want spectacle.”

“What’s gone (from the stage) now is the stuff that TV and movies do better.”

“There will always be a hunger for live entertainment.”

Peter Parnell —American playwright

“What we’re missing now (on Broadway) are commercial producers for the serious plays of established playwrights.”

Richard Monette —artistic director of Stratford Festival in Canada

“…if you (as an actor) can do Shakespeare, you can do anything.”

“Repertory theatre is a dying art…”

“People think film is naturalistic.” “…real people talking in real space to real people. That is in fact what the theatre is about.”

“I think human beings…have a life force that Shakespeare articulates.”

Julie Taymor —director of theatre, film and opera

“Magic is in the ability of the human being to imagine.”

“Theatre is about creating a sense of awe in a space..”

“When film directors don’t rehearse, it’s either because they don’t have money or because they are frightened of it.”

“When I walk in to a theater to see a live production I want to be transported to a world that is thoroughly surprising and illuminating.”

Maggie Gyllenhaal —American actor

“I think acting is whatever you are feeling.”

David Leveaux —associate director at the Donmar Warehouse in London

“Theatre needs to be an event…”

“The theatre depends on being incomplete. It depends on suggestion.”

Michael Kahn —artistic director of the Shakespeare Theatre in Washington D.C.

“Mostly in the movies, too, actors tend to play themselves.”

“The kids coming to our acting program at Julliard haven’t read; they’ve seen mostly television.”

“…the agents won’t let them (actors) do theatre—actually stops them!”

Adrian Lester — British stage actor

“Actors who are stage animals can be fantastic on screen, as long as they can let go of the technical elements they normally use in the theatre and deal with the fact that nothing happens in sequence.”

“I can’t exist as an actor without doing plays.”

Peter Hall —created the Royal Shakespeare Company and famed director

“In London, there’s still a tradition that you will work on the stage, that you hone your craft on the stage, and the stage is important.”

“The thing that always amazes me about New York is…that if you want to see Ibsen, Chekhov, Shakespeare, Moliere, you have a hard time. There is no classical tradition at all. And that’s not Hollywood’s fault; it’s Broadway’s fault.”

“You certainly have to work harder when you go to theatre. A film tells you where to look. It dominates you.”

“…the essence of theatre is play and imagining.”

“Film gets stuck in naturalism.”

Patrick Marber —British playwright, screenwriter, TV and theatre director

“What I really am is a playwright who does screenplays.”

“I’m just a hack trying to make a living.”

“When I’m writing a play…I’m telling a story in dialogue.”

“The stage is the only opportunity as an actor to be in full control of your performance.”

“In the theatre, the playwright is top of the tree.”

“Theatre is ritual.” “…for me, the theatre is about actors and words.”

(On Theatre) “If its good, people will come.”

Drew Hodges —creative director of SpotCo advertising agency

‘…theatre marketing tends to speak only to those who already go to theatre.”

“Theatre is an acquired taste.”

Gordon Davidson —artistic director of the Mark Taper Forum in LA

“One of the best things about doing theatre in LA is the incredible talent pool.”

“We have film actors work here who will sometimes have a hard time understanding why they have to do the scene the same way every time.”

In theatre “people sitting together in a dark room become a community.”

Linda Emond —Chicago stage actress and TV and film actor

“…in Chicago…there’s so little celebrity and such a strong non-equity scene…and the Midwestern work ethic—all that creates an energy that supports everything else.”

“I love the challenge of the visual nature of film.”

Robert Brustein —dean of the Yale School of Drama and drama critic for the New Republic magazine

“A theatre audience has to be small enough to be a community.”

“…the single ticket buyers still depend on reviews, and the reviewers are not trustworthy; they are never trustworthy.”

“…movie acting is not acting; it’s behavior.”

“…a sense of immediacy is crucial to the dramatic experience.”

Paul Scofield —revered British Shakespearian actor

“I love the theatre as being my life, but excursions from that life in movies is also a vital experience and a refreshment.”

“An actor is influenced by an audience.”

Richard Eyre —artistic director of the National Theatre (England), writer and film director

“The reason that many film directors don’t rehearse with actors is that they’re afraid of them. They don’t understand them.”

‘I think almost the best screen actor ever was Cary Grant.”

“And in order for those connections (between the form and the audience) to take place, the audience has to be there, has to partner, a coconspirator, to that fiction.”

“In the theatre, almost invariably, you’re putting the focus on the person who is speaking, whereas in film, by no means: dialogue is sometimes incidental, sometimes it’s a background, an accompaniment, or it just is there to resonate against the image that is on the screen.”

“But I think the single most important thing about the theatre is that it’s always poetic. Everything is a metaphor, everything stands for something because it’s not real and you know it’s not real…. (it is) an act of imagination.”

Anna Deavere Smith —actor, teacher, author and playwright

“…the job of the actor is to make the project special to the audience…”

“So, you have to be likeable on television; you have to be watchable in theatre.”

Robert Falls —artistic director of the Goodman Theater in Chicago

“ But you really can’t be a star in this country without a film career.”

“Theatre wants more resonance. It has to be metaphorical; it wants to have a bigger idea behind it.”

“…silence is a part of theatrical language, like the rests in music..”

“I don’t think audiences are aware of how much they impact a performance.”

“…far more people in this country go to live artistic events than go to live sporting events…more people go to museums, plays, concerts, ballet, and opera than (any sporting event).”

“…in theatre, the critic has huge power.”

“It’s impossible in Chicago to become a star or a failure.”

“…the ephemeral quality of theatre is frustrating.”

Mel Kenyon —playwright’s agent

“ Producers can’t read.”

“ critics can’t always tell the difference between a bad production of a good play and a good production of a bad play.”

“There seems to be this incredible thirst for melodrama.”

Tony Kushner —American playwright

“… the business of writing a play and the business of writing a screenplay have almost nothing to do with one another.”

“ One of the differences between stage speech and film speech is the posture of intimacy.”

“ The worst thing we could have done with Angels would have been to make it a spectacle.”

“…the fact that twenty- or thirty- something’s apparently don’t buy theatre subscriptions, they buy single tickets…”

“ And we have a real shortage of great directors in the theatre.”

“ The three most important lessons in life:

‘critical consciousness’ or common “horse sense”

second lesson is about loss…theatre vanishes and is different each night;

third lesson: the unbelievable powerful partnership between the audience and the staged event.”

The above sampler should whet you appetite to read more from these articulate professionals whose honesty and passion for their art comes across loud and clear.

In the 161 pages of Upstaged Making Theatre in the Media Age, Anne Nicholson Weber has created a volume of ideas, concepts and truths from 24 credible artists that strengthens the viability of the stage. This terrific read is a must for drama students, working actors, directors and those of us who relish the art of storytelling. After reading Weber’s work, you’ll have a finer appreciation of live theatre.

Highly Recommended

Tom Williams

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