Friday, May 27, 2011

Hamlet was right: The play IS the thing.

NOTE: I spent many hours as a "theater mom" while my boys enjoyed participating in a number of theatrical productions and musical performances during their high school years. For years, I've likened the hours I've spent as an enthralled listener to a spa treatment: the ultimate relaxation and balm for my soul at the same time. Too many time to count, I've been beyond proud of them as they would confidently stride across a stage and capture the audience with their vocal gifts.

The post below reflects back on those years and is my small thank you to "theater kids" of every age who will never lost the sparks that makes the magic happen.

As Hamlet proclaimed: “The play’s the thing…” I don't have nearly the subterfuge Hamlet had in mind by quoting this line but I will say this: he was right. Backstage, as I stand in silent awe of the tumult and talent surrounding me, I think I understand him at least form one perspective. Just as certainly as night follows day, this season finds hundreds of students experiencing the culmination of months of hard work and dedication: the high school musical.

What’s endlessly remarkable to me about the whole enterprise is the absolute passion of every single person concerned. But in the marathon run up to opening night, I wonder if that passion sometimes gets overshadowed by the “business” – the lists, tasks, details and sure, stress levels – that creates the well-oiled machine of a show that “works.”

Set designers start with a plan, and then follow it up with hundreds of details surrounding the construction, painting and portability of each piece. The talented crew has little desire to stand in front of a spotlight but their work helps every moment, every nuance come alive on stage. They step up to build it, to paint it, to move it – and then they step down; out of sight, behind the curtain.

Lighting and sound techs want nothing more than to make sure everything is seen and heard precisely as planned for the audience in the darkened theater. They transport us to a different time and place as they create the mood and allow us to enter the world of the story. A dark forest feels like a dark forest; a raucous tavern sounds like a raucous tavern. And although they, too, work out of sight, we see and hear their work throughout a successful performance.

Musicians move us with every note. Sitting unobtrusively in the dark, they help create the mood of the story that unfolds on stage. The score makes us laugh, makes us tear up, or cues us at critical moments. Musicians touch us with stirring anthems or delicate harmonies as they accompany the vocalists, and add texture and layers to each piece.

Costumes, makeup and props create entirely new characters out of the everyday teenagers who step on stage to entertain us with drama and song. Ultimately, we’re face to face with the actors and actresses themselves. The months they spend moving thoughtfully from place to place on stage, blocking a scene one way, then another, then another and then possibly another before settling on exactly who stands/moves/sits where and when appears casual and spontaneous during a performance. The turn, or nod, or touch that appears unpracticed and genuine goes through a number of versions before it becomes second nature to the character and the performer.

Dedicated directors want nothing more than to help every student have fun, improve their skills, and enjoy their experience. They, too, sit quietly in the dark, or walk the halls backstage, as the performance unfolds. Everything is in the hands of their students, and they surrender it all to the curtain up cue.

There comes that point where they know every move, they know every word, every note, every cue, every set change. They simply can’t know it any better. But the question is: what do they know? They’ve spent months concentrating on the dynamics, the marks, the costumes, lights, sound, and make-up – yet I hope they remember the whole, not necessarily the pieces.

As theaters go dark this spring, I wonder: what does this all come to – when the final note plays and the curtain falls? Surely the participants take something away from the experience as they return full-time to their real lives and leave the show behind.

Sure, no one wants to drop a line or miss a cue – but now and in the years to come, I hope the actors, technicians and musicians have learned so much more than the mechanics. I hope they discovered that, at its best, the pure essence of theater transports all of us beyond the everyday world.

I hope they’ve found the heart of the show; and the commitment they made to express that heart with every bit of their being. I hope they recall how the lighting they created looked soft and entrancing; how the set they built evoked exactly the right atmosphere; how the words they delivered or music they performed emerged from a place they had not fully explored until exactly that moment; that moment of fulfillment and triumph on stage.

This is about the joy and passion for the craft, about collaborating and celebrating each other’s gifts. It’s digging deep, and bringing what lies within them to the surface for all to see.

You’ve created that miraculous, unforgettable, always unique experience called theater. To everyone who has already taken their final bows this year, and to those who are about to: thank you. And as they sang in Les Miz: here’s to them; and here’s to you.

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