Sunday, February 12, 2012

In praise of college theater

I saw three plays this past week, which might be a record for me. First was Pride and Prejudice at LSU, then Eiffel Tower Revisited, also at LSU, then Anton in Show Business at Loyola (which David and I dragged ourselves to NOLA in frigid weather despite having irritating colds to see - and it was totally worth it!).

Since all of these plays were on college campuses, with casts comprised mostly, or totally, of students, I've been thinking about some aspects of college theater that I think are pretty cool - despite the occasional presence of what David calls "studenty acting."

1. Cross-gender and generally non-traditional casting. It's so much more fun (and educational) for an actor to play characters different outside of their own age and gender. In college, you get a chance to do this. Thankfully, new plays are beginning to reflect the reality that there are lots of women and people of color in theater (and, um, in the world), but so many of the "classics" offer few female parts. Solution: let the women play male parts. They can do it - they're actors. Also, give the audience some credit. Their brains are capable of processing, say, a 20 year old playing another 20 year old's mother, or siblings of different races. I promise.

2. Experimentation. Sure, sometimes it goes horribly wrong, but it's still better than recycling the same tired shows over and over. Colleges can afford to experiment, because they're not beholden to certain demographics of season ticket holders like a lot of professional theaters can be. In fact, they can put on just about anything they like, and have an instant audience of students who are required to see the show because they're taking a theater course. Ha.

3. Budget. Okay, I know theater departments never have enough money. They're underfunded, etc. But they still have lots more money than a lot of community theaters and small theater companies. That means you get great sound and light boards to fiddle around with, and good costumes and sets. You also don't have to scramble for backstage crew, because that's yet another thing you can require of students taking a theater course! Ha. Ha.

4. Energy. There's nothing like excited, eager, not-yet-jaded college students to breathe some life into a show. I love working with college students because they love to work! In fact, they're often so happy to be cast in a show that they (gasp!) show up for rehearsal! And sometimes they even (gasp!) learn their lines well before dress rehearsal! And there are moments, from the audience, when you can feel this excitement, this pure joy of discovery, crackling like electricity through the air. It's hard to be a cynical old theater person when that happens.

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Pride & Prejudice and loving my view from the audience

Well, it's Super Bowl Sunday, and you know what that means...a stage version of Jane Austen's Pride And Prejudice! The theater was packed, so I guess there is hope for humanity ;)

I enjoyed the show. At first it seemed rather fast-paced and rushed, because the way it was adapted for the stage called for very quick transitions between scenes. Night became day, weeks passed by in an instant while stagehands dressed as maids whisked chairs on and off without so much as a break to dim the lights. But I soon realized that this was probably necessary to fit all of the important plot points of the novel into the play. It still ran nearly three hours, as my Mom (who attended with me) and I were shocked to discover once it was over. Mom was sad that her favorite line "I cannot abide a mountain" was not included in the adaptation.

Overall, I think this was a wonderful achievement for Swine Palace over at LSU. The casting was so well done that I instantly knew which actor was playing the principal roles before any of them spoke.

I recognized several actors from the play David and I saw at Swine Palace last spring, The Metal Children. I was also very excited to recognize two actors from shows I'd seen in New Orleans, at Southern Rep and Tulane Shakespeare. One of these actors was playing Mr. Darcy, and I'd seen him in King Lear (as Edgar) and Macbeth (in the title role). I'm annoyed with myself for leaving my program behind in my mom's car, because now for the life of me I can't remember the man's name. He has blown me away in everything I've seen him do. I will even say that he gave Colin Firth a run for his money as Mr. Darcy, and I love me some Colin Firth. Anyone reading this who can identify this brilliant actor, please comment.

The only negative aspect of this show for me was the large physical reactions and expressions that the actors often displayed. I think one of the joys of Jane Austen's work is that the characters must restrain their emotions and behave in a manner appropriate for society, but their true feelings come through in their witty words. Their was some scoffing and shrugging and eye-rolling going on that I thought was not necessary, and took away from the power of Austen's dialogue. Since this was happening across the board, I think it must have been a directorial choice. Sadly, one of the major offenders here was the actress playing Lizzy Bennett. I could tell she was a talented actor, but I didn't get Lizzy's sharp yet subtle wit from her performance. Her Lizzy seemed less confident than I imagine the character to be. Again, she was clearly talented, but I was disappointed in the choices taken.

I was thinking today about how much theater I've seen in the past couple of years. My pregnancy, and now baby care, prevented me from participating as much as I'd done before, and as a result I'm more often an audience member. I was surprised to discover that I love it. When I was younger, I couldn't see a show without wishing I was in it (unless I hated it). My desire to be involved eclipsed my enjoyment as an observer. That is no longer the case. Now I find myself loving the chance to get lost in the story as only an audience member can.

This is not to say that I don't miss participating - I do. But in the meantime, I enjoy this phase of my life, where I can sit back and watch and soak it all in.