Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Musings on theater.  Seven million G.I.s returned from World War II and went to college on the G.I. bill, paid for by the government. This led to the establishment of hundreds of new colleges lusting for students in a competitive marketplace. Liberal Arts proliferated, and by the late 1960s, the college theater departments had usurped the role of theater companies in the training of actors. A formerly disreputable profession, except for stars, that made mothers suffer when their pride an joy studied acting, suddenly was semi-respectable when offspring graduated with a B.A.
Unlike the other performing arts, which require high skills, training and discipline, acting is the least structured art and most students don't participate until college, unlike dance, for example.
Which invariably starts when children are very young. Colleges also use the grading system, 
which inhibits the exploration of extremes, often a sloppy, chaotic process, yet vital to,the development of stagecraft. So bright young people who wanted to be actors went to college by the thousands, yet the colleges never told them there was only work for a few hundred, almost none of it paying. In general, the same thing happened to directors, many of whom were encouraged to deconstruct the classics, their professors blissfully unaware that the classics are class documents, that lose stature when Macbeth becomes a mafia don and Hamlet becomes a 
Mental patient.
Regional theaters spread and Off-Off Broadway teemed with hastily and frequently casually produce plays of varying quality, that attracted small audiences. Broadway productions of the classics became fewer and fewer, mostly with a Hollywood star and a weak supporting cast that was contra the needs of a classical drama consequently not thrilling the audience, resulting in poor returns for the producers. Like the other performing arts in America, theater was beginning to lose its greying out audience.
I started my own theater company in the mid-70s and quickly learned the talent pool for Off-Off Broadway was quite limited and the few with high abilities wanted to be paid union scale. No one seemed cognizant that 97% of the union membership never worked in theater and were mostly waiters and bartenders. My ambition to profoundly move audiences compelled me to develop an ensemble training process that was so demanding that only a few capable performers persevered. The rest were peculiar misfits who were never appreciated before. 
I began a long term company process doing Italian Commedia del' Arte, using
 scenarios translated and adapted from the I Gelosi, the first professional theater company, that traveled Italy and France in the 16th century with many wild adventures, and presented low and high theater, opera, ballet, not the stereotypical low comedy, with actors playing the same roles for life, as asserted by college theater departments. This troupe earned a living with their art, or starved. 
Of course I couldn't demand that commitment from mostly over indulged middle-class amateurs, but my rehearsal procedure was rigorous and diverse, using physical, mental and emotional techniques to develop a working ensemble, the only logical way to present a play that depicts a small world. It should be obvious that the actors must live in that world for the duration of the play, or lose the interest and attention of the audience.
Gary Beck