Monday, November 18, 2013

Live Theater-The Red Virgin

Normally, I use this space to discuss innovation, and the ideas and opportunities that innovation can bring to the physical and cultural spaces that encompass our lives. And to a degree, entertainment, and arts, have an impact in that arena. But, I am certainly no expert, not even an enthusiast for theater, so anything I post here, is with the understanding that I am a complete dilettante in terms of live performance. In truth, I love live performance, the immediacy and necessary improvisation of live performance is so much more compelling to me, than movies and television. Even though any live performance is rehearsed, and certainly any theater production is scripted and produced, live theater leaves open every performance and performer to the change that something changes every time.

I attended a performance of The Red Virgin, which is a premiere play, based upon the events surrounding the Paris Commune of 1871, and in particular, following the story of Louise Michel, the titular character of the play. This is not so much the innovative part of this story, although, the story has, to my knowledge, never been portrayed, or referenced in any theater production. What was quite innovative to me, was the scale of the story, relative to the scale of the company, budget and locale with which the company sought to perform. Worthy, in large part, because it showed to me, that live theater can be a part of any community. Art, seen as the expression of creativity, is vital to a healthy expression of the self, and by extension, allows for a community to express that health through interaction and communication. Art achieves it's greatest elements, when it is shared from person to person, not held away in the dark corners of some collectors ego, and held so high, that only the elite can enjoy it. It isn't the story, but, the performance that captivates my thoughts with The Red Virgin.

To begin, you need a space, for everything needs a space, and the space should fit the actions. Yet, when I arrived to observe the story or the Paris Commune, I was immediately struck by the fact that there was no stage. In fact, there was only a room, perhaps the size of a large living room, with a beautiful fireplace, characteristic of Julia Morgans work in Berkeley. A huge fireplace, centrally placed and perfectly proportioned. And then, some chairs, in fact two rows of chairs surrounding the central space. No scenery, and indeed, there would be no scenery in the entire play. Some stage lights, but, nothing more than one might see in the most basic of high school stage settings. What was I in for? A few props, a table and chair, a drum, a bottle or two and a accordion on top of the piano.

The players, my friend Anna Ishida, and five other actors would perform a play, with a scope as large as Paris, relating the story of a political upheaval that had repercussions that carried through many decades, and questions that are still as valid as today, on a stage that amounted to a space about 20 feet wide and 30 feet long. When I speak of intimacy in theater, it gets no more intimate than to have the performers at eye level, performing in arms reach, a broad story with nothing more than their performance to carry them. Great costumes, great lighting and sound, and a great story. But, performed in a box, a beautiful (thanks again Julia) but stark box. Truly, any space, an abandoned store front, a closed restaurant or coffee shop, a warehouse, could easily have been this place. It gives me pause, as it makes live theater less precious, it removed the barriers of grand space, impossible budget, and excess resources. It truly challenged what innovative theater could be, bridging forward to the idea that art can be anywhere, and bridging back, to the street performances of another time.

And to the acting, how does one act, when all one has is voice, and movement, and little else. It is often said that theater is acted large and broad, film is acted small and close. That the camera does not want the overview, and that the theater does not welcome the detail. But, what of live theater, within inches of the performer. No electronics, no distance, no camera to lie, no tape to edit. You are playing to your audience, and they are on the stage. I don't really understand what it means to perform, or act, but, I do understand the difference between the grand and the intimate, how a design for a great park differs so markedly from the design for a private garden. Yet, here was a grand play, performed in as intimate a setting as if I was sitting within the cast itself.

And yet it worked, it worked so wonderfully well. I was immersed, not in the way that I might think I was a part of the story, for surely, I was just a voyeur to the performers. But, to the audience as well, we were all one. The story, the place, the performers and the audience, all one, in one beautiful box. It was revelatory, in the idea that high art, the art of the live performance, of the story tellers, could exist in any space, as long as the welcome was there. I truly believe that this was one of the most interesting experiences of entertainment I have ever encountered.