Theatre vs Film: Round One

I like movies. Really I do. I like theatre too. Our modern culture is now so saturated in film and television as our primary mode of storytelling that it’s hard sometimes to separate what’s what. Other than the screen versus live actor thing. The differences are far more profound though, they certainly stem from an essential difference in production and presentation but these affect every aspect of story and design.

I wrote this article back in 2009 after watching Done London.

Plays that want to be Films

July 18, 2009

Theatre is finally dead. Awesome. After years of watching its slow decline I have finally seen its death. It has ceased to be, passed on and moved up to that big playhouse in the sky. Except its corpse won’t keep still. Oh, no it will not. Like a blank-eyed zombie it still lurches around, empty of its essence, its life-force seeking out not braaaaaaains but boxoffice. What is motivating this shuffling cadaver? What has taken up residence in place of theatricality? Film.

I like film, it’s a beautiful medium used by many great storytellers to great effect. But it is a different medium to theatre, something my generation of writers seems to have forgotten. Film and theatre have always swapped their promiscuous lovers since before the Lumière brothers’ film spectacles – Eisenstein even started his career in the theatre – so there is a lot of common ground between the two. The very nature of each medium, the qualities that create their own special blends of advantages and disadvantages, means that they tell stories in very different ways. The stories differ in ways both dramatic and subtle, the kinds of performances that are given by the actors are worlds apart and the arrangements of narrative elements are especially divergent. All these factors mean that despite interrelated forms, you cannot tell a story onstage the way you would on film.

Done London is the latest culprit I’ve seen of writing and directing theatre for film. It is rooted in a film genre – slice-of-life multi-plot – and features naturalistic story, dialogue and acting, ‘montages’ set to genre music for time passing, linear narrative progression and multiple locations. None of which would make this a play in film drag by itself, but taken together they move the play out of play categories. And so audiences get what they’re used to seeing on flat screens in dark rooms.

All of which would be fine if theatre was in fact dead. It’s not. It’s vibrant, exciting and theatrical. Whatever experiment is carried out by the playwrights, directors and performers in theatre, let it not be an experiment in disguising the nature of the form. Audiences may be in love with movies and TV, but that does not mean theatremakers should be giving them what they see in movies and on TV. Ultimately there is really only one way to kill theatre – use it to imitate another medium.

Now I wonder if I was right at all.

The dominance of film has essentially changed our vocabulary, we all understand the concepts of montages to music, of cuts and long versus close up shots. I watched Neil Coppen’s Abnormal Loads last month and it made me question my antipathy to theatre using film techniques. In the hands of a creative designer/director like Coppen stage directions calling for long shots of a village sprouting in a valley, or a dream juxtaposing a rapid fire number of images ‘out-film’ film.  The same potential is there in Beren Belknap’s developing style – no accident that both these director/designer/writers are as immersed in modern media as theatre.

So I must abase myself to admit I was off the mark to condemn theatre using filmic techniques and stylistic flourishes as theatre in film drag, because it’s not hard and fast like that. Instead what we’re seeing are artists are using the creativity of theatre magic to speak in the vocabulary of film to tell their stories. Some artists are just doing it a lot better than others.

Fugard at the Fugard

a post that’s actually about writing and not really a review at all

Drive or walk around the city and you can see my work. A blazing sunset with a thorn tree silhouetted against it. Three small figures can be seen under it, while a flock of birds pass overhead. “Athol Fugard’s The Bird Watchers” the title states in letters taller even than municipal regulations would have them. It’s not the kind of poster I generally like, I’m not a fan of landscapes and the iconography is a touch too clichéd (I should probably mention that I am the designer, but I’ll leave that hanging). But it does make sense in the context of the story Fugard tells, if not with the scenography of Saul Radomsky. Fugard is a writer driven by the wisdom: “write what you know” and in the Birdwatchers he draws on the setting and memories of his conversations with Barney Simon and Yvonne Bryceland. The Central character is Garth, a writer revisiting a time with Lenny, a director, and Rosalyn, an actress. But these roles don’t sum up the relationship between the 3 of them. The play comes in two acts split by an interval and an understaffed scene change. The first half is set in the real world, under the unGwenya tree of Garth’s home and the second is a return to that place and time by an aged Garth in his imagination. The stark simplicity of the stump of the tree and the sear decay of his re-imagined home was biting. The story is a self-flagellation as Garth regrets words, attitudes, selfishness and wasted potential. What I found to be greatest flaw and also the most thought-provoking aspect of the production was this self-absorption, a feedback loop of pain. At one pointed I wanted to give Uncle Athol a hug, in part because a lot of his cutting words I’ve used on myself many times.

There’s this tremendous ego at work when I’m writing.  I’m creating a world of events that I think, believe, know are fascinating to others, are relevant, important and irreplaceable. Did I say Unique? Yes, I believe that too. Against the cacophony of cries that nothing is original, I believe my work is. We are all snowflakes. All writers believe it although they don’t all admit it.

I wasn’t absorbed by the story on stage, either emotionally or intellectually and at the close I wasn’t moved to my feet. But the naked self-portrait followed by the man himself blew the top off my head. Fugard emerged to handle the Q&A with a sneaky and witty answer to anticipated questions of autobiography: he was wearing the same clothes as the character Garth. Justin Cartwright lead the Q&A with Fugard, but we struggled to hear our host, even though Fugard was as clear as the actors had been.

Essentially my thoughts were caught up in this question: Why do we write what we write? Fugard tackles this quite early on. “Love her.” He tells us, referring to all the ugliness, despair and human decay the world has, personified for him in an encounter with a homeless woman. This idea, that writing needs to be driven by compassion, clicked for me. Looking at the plays I’ve seen recently I think that audiences have always known this. While the political satires become shrill or petty and the beautiful, witty pieces of escapist fantasy struggle to be understood, stories of simple compassion genuinely touch people. Look at London Road, look at …miskien. When writing doesn’t let itself love something, or when the director doesn’t see it or the actor doesn’t feel it can still be a lot of things, but it can’t change the audience.

There are a lot of other ideas I’m still processing, about performance styles, politics and morality. For now, let’s leave it on the lesson learned.

“Love her.”