Ah, two of my favorite words. The catalyst of creation. The foundation of art. ...And basically the entire reason we will pay $200 a ticket to see a live performance.
I remember seeing a performance of Hamlet at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah. I’ve seen so many Hamlets, so many Ophelias, so many Rosencrantz-es and Guildensterns-es. Loved nearly all of them (Hamlet is my jam!). But this one was different. This one really grabbed me by the lapels and made me watch hard! The stage was an M.C. Escher drawing come to life. Hamlet and Ophelia were *gasp!* nearly giddy with affection when they interacted, and even almost tender. The production added layers—Imagine that. Layers! To the already formidable layers that are The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark. It was a mind trip! And it was meant to be. Literally. Suddenly everything the characters did was sideways and upside-down, and the set physically reflected all the mental games afoot.
I have probably seen better acted performances—and worse ones, certainly—but this, this was my favorite. I walked into that theater with countless readings, opinions, discussions, and scholarly backup about what I thought of the Danish Prince and his shenanigans. I mean, my capstone class in college was Hamlet! I read about, wrote about, ate, drank, and dreamed the play for months! And now, here I was, staggering out of the house doors, a thousand new questions and ideas tumbling in my mind.
All because of a handful of unique creative choices.
A set—a single, unmoving set, with hardly any bells or whistles, really. Just stairs, stairs in all directions. And actors who said, “what if…?” And then followed where that took them.
West Works Theatre, our own company, did a production of Peter Pan a few years ago. Peter Pan—another of my jams. A play that tugs at my heartstrings even more with every year I watch my children age. So you know I was excited for this! It was our summer performance, so it was outdoors. Instead of using the amphitheatre as we usually do for our summer show, Aubrey Warner—the director—said, “What if we use the playground?”
And it happened again! I watched the Lost Boys swarming over the monkey bars and down the slides, while Wendy pretended to do what mothers do. And they fought injuns and pirates and giant crocodiles...and sometimes each other. And I suddenly realized, Here is Neverland! Here, on a playground, where hundreds of kids have come and climbed and played make-believe. Kids adorned with all manner of costumes pulled out of their dress-up boxes at home. Who, in their pretend games, have transformed the jungle gym into a pirate ship, an alien planet, a haunted house, and an island surrounded by lava. I watched the actors embrace their innocent roles and realized that Aubrey’s chosen set had always been Neverland, and she had always recognized that. I watched my kids at their pretend games differently after that show, with a more bittersweet clarity that “All children….grow up.”
All because of a handful of creative choices.
This. This is the beating heart of live performance. Creative choices that change a timeless tale just enough to make it new and strange and affecting. To make the audience lean forward and react and carry it home with them. Sometimes the choices are blatant: A maze or a playground, or a changing of era. Often, they are so subtle that we miss the art of it: A shift in the blocking, a deliberate color scheme, an altered personality trait or quirk. But the results can be magical!
Isn’t this why we pay to see Les Miserables again, for the fifth time, when we could just go home and watch the movie on our preferred streaming platform for free? Or Pygmalion? Or In the Heights? Because as good as the movie may—or may not—be, it is set in stone. And we, the audience, we already know.
But when the lights go down in the house, does anything beat that pulse-quickening feeling of “What if….??”