Notes on a Director’s Note

Those of you who know me on Facebook know that I’ve been struggling with this thing for some time now. Seeing as my deadline for completing it has come and gone and I still have a big fat nothing, I decided to post my thoughts here and see if publication lends them an air of coherence. Or if someone will comment with useful suggestions (hint, hint).

So here’s the thing: Can You Believe? is a comedy. A satire, really. Roger Beck, playwright extraordinaire, addresses this in HIS note, so I don’t need to elaborate upon or even mention the play’s genre in my note. The genre of the play is relevant, however, because it gives the audience a set of expectations. Comedy, at least these days, rarely makes its audience feel uncomfortable. One notable exception is, perhaps, a little film we all know and love called The Hangover, which makes us uncomfortable in order to make us laugh. Even in such a case, we’re uncomfortable because the characters are in uncomfortable situations, not because we’re suddenly questioning our value systems. Can You Believe?, on the other hand, like any good satire should, makes us uncomfortable in order to force us to confront a socio-political issue.

Unfortunately, the vast majority of North American audiences are grossly unfamiliar with art that asks them to do anything more than sit back and absorb. It’s been my experience that these audiences actually feel insulted and put out when asked to become active participants in the creation of the art, which I personally find appallingly lazy. I must acknowledge, however, that these persistently passive patrons will more than likely make up a large percentage of the audience that will attend performances of Can You Believe?. I must also acknowledge the sad reality that precious few of them will bother to read the director’s note in the program. Thus, no amount of my philosophizing about how it’s not really necessary to understand a play in order to enjoy it–and, for that matter, that it’s not necessary to enjoy a play in the first place–will reach the majority of the majority of my audience.

All that being said, I find that I feel obligated to impress upon my audience a sense of the play’s mission: to force questions upon its viewers. The play wants us, as audience, to rethink our perception of ‘reality’. I’m reluctant to use that word (reality); too many professors on too many occasions have demonstrated its ambiguity. I also feel, however, that ‘reality’ is indeed the word I mean to use here. In this context, it means our collective sense of the way that things are–our accepted version of truth. An audience coming in to Can You Believe? looking for simple comedy will be disappointed, as will an audience coming in looking for answers to questions or a hard stance one way or another. Certainly I and the cast and the playwright have our personal opinions about what the play means and what the answers to its questions are, but it’s not necessary or even desirable for us to share those with our audience. It’s ever so much more fun when the audience gets to make its own decisions!  But in order for an audience to make its own decisions, it must recognize that there are decisions to be made and that it is its responsibility to make them. The very title of the play invites discussion: Can You Believe? A question. An early version of the ending posed a similar query: Ken, left alone on stage, turns to the audience and asks, “So. Did you believe it?” We changed the ending because we felt that such an open-ended finale might be a bit too risky. After all, the point of the play isn’t whether the audience bought in to the reality of the Horsepersons and Reverend John; the point is that they thought about it and asked the question. In other words, the idea is to create questions without creating answers. Asking so direct a question at the end of the show seemed to invite the kind of answers that we didn’t want, particularly from the theatrical community. “Did you believe it?” conjures up images of acting classrooms and industry professionals informing young hopefuls that they didn’t believe this or that moment. In this particular case, I don’t really care if you believe that the characters are real. I care that you think about whether they might be real. I care that you take the journey with Ken, even if you don’t end up at the same point as the person sitting next to you. At the very least, it’ll give you something to talk about over post-show cocktails.

I have no wish to insult my audience. After all, their bums in the Helen Gardiner Phelan’s seats are the sole contributors to my paycheck on this project, and, try as we might to fight it, financial considerations are always important. I do, however, want to (gently?) encourage them to step outside their comfort zones and take the play not at face value. I want my audience to allow themselves to not believe at some moments and believe whole-heartedly at others. I want for them a roller-coaster ride in which they take an active role in building the track (don’t try that  at home, kids…). Perhaps most importantly, I want the audience to understand and revel in the fact that complete understanding is not equivalent to a fulfilling theatre experience. I have understood every word, motivation, and action in plays that have been terrible and boring. Isn’t it more fun to watch theatre that keeps you on your toes and leaves you wondering, “what if?”

Help me out, audience of North America! Why do you insist on passive absorption of entertainment when art that requires your active participation actually provides enjoyment? A play you understand right away is over when the curtain falls; a play that forces questions upon you continues in your mind long after the house empties. Who wouldn’t prefer the latter?

 

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3 Comments

  1. I must say, your concern surprised me. It seems to me that the audiences for a Fringe Festival would be more sophisticated than the average ticket buyer at Shea’s and would expect something different. I also thought that Canadians would be more European in their theatrical training – i.e. more Brecht than Stanislavsky- and therefore would expect to be presented with questions with no set answers. I don’t know your script, so I’m unsure of even how I will respond, and at times I have been known to take a back seat at times when asked to get up and work at a production. If you are granted the time (big IF in Fringes, I know) you might follow the performances with an Agusto Boal tupe of social forum in which audience members identify a character’s possible turning point in the script and then take the role of the character and improvises with the cast what might have happened. I first saw this in action in Hong Kong at a conference and have been using it with student audiences for the full-length play. They tend to see that the “easy” solutions aren’t so easy after all.
    Can’t wait to see your production. I’ll participate – even if i’m feeling lazy.
    Cheers,
    K

    • Kate,
      It’s probably unfair to lump every audience member into the passive category, but the sad fact remains that even Canadian audiences, at least in my experience, prefer the big-ticket musical spectacle to the little studio low-budget masterpiece.
      Fringe audiences do, indeed, tend to be more open to ‘alternative’ forms of theatre than standard Sheas/Mirvish audiences; there is an awful lot of crossover, however, especially in Toronto. I have no doubt that there will be a broad spectrum of audience responses to _Can You Believe?_, from the over-enthusiastic to the bored. What I’m hoping to accomplish in the director’s note is to, in essence, warn my audience that their expectations may not be met and assure them that that is not at all a bad thing!

      It’s also unfair to suggest that an audience should _always_ be asked to participate actively in a performance. Often, a show asks nothing of its audience beyond applause during the curtain call, and there’s absolutely nothing wrong with an audience being entertained. What I’m seeking, however, is an audience that recognizes the kind of show that begs an active response. Ideally, I’d like to have the audience leave feeling that they didn’t quite understand everything but also that they _wanted_ to understand! Maybe they’ll want to understand so badly that they’ll see it again… ?

  2. Courtesy of a friend from Exeter, and transplanted from Facebook:

    Very interesting stuff – and a question I have been wrestling with (in my own way) for many years now. The passive audience isn’t just a theatre artist’s problem, it’s there for any performance medium. When I was an undergrad in music I read a story about the composer Charles Ives losing his temper at an audience member during a concert of music by Carl Ruggles and himself. Ives confronted the clearly uninvolved listener and shouted “Why can’t you stand up before fine strong music like this and use your ears like a man?” Ives’ remark came from his frustration at the audience being unwilling to be challenged by new music, preferring to sit and have their “taste” validated by something familiar – often SO familiar that they can simply acknowledge it in passing as opposed to actively listening to it.
    Jack Nicholson once said in an interview that it was his job to “keep attacking the audience and their expectations and values” and I really agree with that. I think the challenge is in each of us finding our ideal way to keep mounting that attack and to do it in such a way as to engage the audience instead of turn them off. Obviously…easier said than done.

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