The Playgoer: Daredevil Theatre

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Monday, November 17, 2008

Daredevil Theatre

British theatre maker Andy Field channels some Artaud in the Guardian, singing the praises of a recent performance he saw of, basically, daredevil theatre.

At our venue in Edinburgh this year, the Bristol-based company Action Hero previewed their new show, Watch Me Fall. Simply put, this is a show about daredevils. The audience gather around a runway strip marked out on the floor of the theatre, a small ramp placed ominously in its centre. Towards the show's climax, one performer rides a tiny red bike up and over the jump as fast as he can. As the audience roar their support, he hangs for a brief moment suspended in the air… before crashing down and skidding into the wall with a sickening thump. In the long pause before the show continues, he lies there in a crumpled heap, the whole space agonisingly silent but for the sound of his breathing.
Okay, I agree Actors Equity is right to police such practices. But the extremity of Field's example usefully illustrates his compelling larger point:

Risk can be a uniquely engaging part of a theatre show. It's rare to be in the presence of a moment of such live and genuine unpredictability, of something that could have such lasting consequences. Theatre is, after all play, and play is always at its most riveting when its fictional framework is being tested, when someone's taking it too far, when it's just about to all end in tears. It always has the potential to break free and cause havoc in the real world.

For me, the most exciting moments in theatre have often been those moments where the space between the real and imaginary begins to break down. You realise that theatre can do more than just comment on or reflect the real world, that it is not happening in an empty space but a real one and is always, in small ways, changing it. Few things make that more apparent than the awareness of how badly things could go wrong.

Could one reason theatre attendance has fallen off with the younger generations be the total lack of any risk, or even surprise? Even a good concert can provide that. And it's why Cirque de Soleil continues to be the highest grossing live entertainment in the world.


Unknown said...

How can you claim that AE is *right* to police such practices, and then ask why theater is losing audiences to rock shows and circuses? It's one or the other.

When you cannot so much as stage on a rake, or have more than 30 seconds of fog per 1.5 hours without buying an examption, you begin to realize that AEA regulations are in fact aesthetically normative, and geared towards realism. People get all upset whenever a european company comes to the states, and asks, "why don't we make theater this daring?" But part of the answer is, in fact, a strong actor's union.

Strong union=realism & actor's theater

Weak/No union=director's theater and bike accidents.

I take no stand on this either way; but it comes down to an interesting confluence of aesthetic and social ideals.

I should also point out that, wierdly, AEA's artistic strength in terms of keeping the actors safe doesn't seem to get them very far in terms of health insurance or a living wage. Sure, in Germany a director may ask you to swim naked through a pool of boiling mayonnaise, but you get paid much better to do it.

Anonymous said...

I call bullshit, mcm. To lay the American Theater's aesthetic conservatism at the foot of the actors' union is absurd. I'm an Equity member, and I could complain about plenty of things that Equity does or does not do, but the examples you cite don't hold any water. (These are the things that will move American theater forward: fog and raked stages? Are you for real?)

Being a union in an industry where the supply of available workers far, far outstrips the demand for their work is a difficult circumstance. Equity has to balance the need to increase opportunities with the need to ensure that those who are working can survive (both in terms of the wages they're paid and in making sure directors can't ask actors to ride bicycles into the wall without making sure there's a safe way to do it first).

Blaming the actors' union for the prevailing theatrical aesthetic is ridiculous. Of all the creative forces behind the major artistic decisions in almost every show produced in the US, the actors are the most expendable and have the least power. I wish it weren’t so, and my personal tastes don't run to naturalism, but the shows that get produced in this country (and the directors and producers that run them) aren't being chosen by Equity, that's for damn sure.

Boring choices about what plays get produced, and how they're done, get made long before the Equity deputy says you can't treat your actors badly.

Playgoer said...

If I may take the middle ground here...

Yes, I still want actors to not be physically endangered. AEA is right to be concerned about that. And, no, they're not responsible for the programming of plays. (Though I suppose one could wish for perhaps a future deal where minimums could be lowered for large cast plays, maybe?)

But I do take seriously the larger point made by Mr "MCM won't unsubscribe me". (Who assured me in private, btw, this moniker was accdiental. He's not THAT ornery.)
That being--note how much a union like AEA HAS to do to protect its members in a country with no social safety net.

Think, for instance, of what a burden it would take off AEA negotiations if there were nationalized, or even state wide universal health care? Think what a relief that would be on actors who now slave to meet those "minimum" weeks to keep their insurance.

Lastly, not in answer to these but to elaborate on the original post: I recall a crazy production of Antigone I recently saw at La Mama downtown. Actually it was called "Antigone" but it was basically a wordless (and frankly kind of awful) evening of physical theatre depicting nothing that happens in Sophocles. And one of the scenes therein was of a kind of ancient Athens-style Olympic Games. A whole 15 minutes consisted of nothing but one actor after another doing the high jump. And it was the most engaging thing I had seen onstage all year.

That's not an insult to the rest of the season. Just a reminder that so much of "live entertainment" (plays, sports, rock concerts) shares--and SHOULD share--some basic primal elements. I could discount that scene as "sports" and just rule it out as being "theatre." But watching to see if each actor would actually clear that high jump bar (in other words, "suspense"), plus admiration for the physical skill involved seemed to fulfill all I wanted from a performance when I bought my ticket.