Thursday, May 15, 2008

Less Is More for "Merrily We Roll Along"

"How did you get to be here?" - the lyric from Stephen Sondheim and George Furth's Merrily We Roll Along that haunts me still, even after closing the show almost two weeks ago now...

No matter how many times I heard/sang this during the show (which was a lot!), it meant something to me, especially toward the end of the whole process. But what I seriously ask this question about is the production itself. It started off as one thing and we ended with something completely different.

A few days before spring semester began, Michael Flowers, the Department Chair and director of the show, sent me an email giving me the news that not only was I going to be in the show, I was going to be the Props Crew Head for the show as well. My first thought: "Oh wow, Michael must really trust me to be able to do two things at once. This is awesome. What a great opportunity!" My second thought: "Oh my God! The props list is four pages long!" Needless to say, I was a little daunted at the size of the props list...well over 100 props. And this was also going to be a scaled down, minimalist version of the show. During my first meeting with Michael, we discussed the time periods of the show and what all the props should look like. I was beginning to be a little more concerned. The good thing was that I had from February to April 21st to get all of the props ready. I had a crew of 8 to help me gather the props. That sounds like a dream to have 8 people on props crew, right? But guess what, the 8 people were also in the show, one of them playing "Frank", the lead character in the musical. So I guess you're wondering if there is any relief, a light at the end of the tunnel...well there is. As we began the rehearsal process, Michael started to come to the realization that in his effort to simplify things, he had actually made things much more complicated. For example, in the first scene we were going to start with an overstuffed chair, a lamp, a phone, a rug, a bottle, a glass, a bookshelf, two scripts, and two pictures. Keep in mind that this is in Theatre One, a very small blackbox theatre we had transformed to be in-the-round, and the stage was going to have to be cleared within a matter of seconds. As you might have guessed, it wasn't working out so well. As a matter of fact, most of the scenes in the show had tons of props, but we only have so much time (muscially) to get everything off and set up for the next scene. So Michael and I started talking and he came to the conclusion that we were going to cut back...way back. The first scene with all of that stuff came down to using only four black cubes. These cubes became the basic "furniture" used in almost every scene of the play. There were a few other real furniture pieces like a small rolling bar and two round tables, but for the most part everthing became extremely minimalist...much to my happiness and sanity. We even got rid of using any liquids in the show. If we drank something or poured something into a glass there was nothing there. It was just so much easier not to deal with actual liquids during performances.

What we all discovered about scaling back the production is that it doesn't take away anything from the show. We found that it wasn't necessary to have huge, elaborate sets with over 100 props. People have imaginations, right? Is it too much to ask for people to use their imaginations when they come to the theatre? From the reaction that we got from the audience (which was resoundingly positive every night) no one seemed to have a problem with the fact that there was nothing in the glasses that we were drinking out of. No one seemed to have a problem seeing the same four cubes used over and over again to suggest different locations. If we, the actors, believed in it then the audience shouldn't have any trouble suspending their disbelief. Oh sure, a Broadway show with a huge, elaborate set is quite impressive, but is it necessary? Does it create more of a spectacle to be ooh'd and ahh'd over rather than a story to be told? With Merrily..., the toning down of prop usage allowed the story to have utmost priority. The audience could spend all of their energy focusing on the characters and their relationships with each other; which is what theatre is supposed to be about anyway, isn't it? We live in an age where everything is done for us. We don't have to work to imagine anything. Have you seen an action movie lately? We sit there and are spoonfed entertainment that doesn't require us to engage it in the least bit. And unfortunately, most Broadway musicals have become this sort of entertainment. We pay over $100 for a ticket, are dazzled by brilliant special effects, and leave the theatre saying "Well wasn't that nice." And that's about where it the theatre lobby. But why wouldn't you want to see something that you can take home with you, keep talking about even after you have left the lobby. Do you really need all the flash or can you do without it in exhange for some food for thought? You decide...

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