Bringing the Classroom to the Theater
Sarah Moore discusses the value of seeing live productions of plays studied in school.
Ben Stiller in The House of Blue Leaves (© Joan Marcus)
Throughout my experience at NYU, I've been fortunate enough to see lots of great theater, and often, it is related to what I'm studying in the classroom. Many of my Dramatic Literature professors will let us know about new productions of classic plays going on if it's corresponding to what we are studying, and they recommend that we check it out. Sometimes it's even a requirement, which brings a fun new dimension to studying drama lit.
For example, I took a Modern Drama class last spring, where after reading John Guare's The House of Blue Leaves, and Tom Stoppard's Arcadia, we went to see the Broadway productions of these two plays as a class. Anyone who has ever studied drama knows that reading a play on the page and then seeing it staged are two hugely different experiences, and there is a lot to talk about -- that may or may not fit into a standard hour-and-fifteen-minute class time. Drama kids have lots of opinions.
For example, did we like the casting? What did we think of Ben Stiller and Billy Crudup in new roles this time around, as opposed to imagining them in their original roles the first time the shows were produced? How great was Edie Falco as Bananas? (So great, that was unanimous.) Did the concept of the director do the text justice? How was the pacing? What was different onstage than what we imagined reading it? Oftentimes, there is disagreement in the classroom, and discussions often get heated. That's the best -- if people are arguing about theater, than someone is doing something right.
This past weekend, I saw Athol Fugard's Blood Knot at the new Signature Center and the Early Plays of Eugene O'Neill, based on the Glencairn Plays presented by the Wooster Group and New York City Players at St. Ann's Warehouse.
I studied Fugard (particularly Master Harold and the Boys...) last year, so it was especially interesting and helpful to have the historical background knowledge of Fugard and experience with his work before seeing this new production. I also had the opportunity to see Angels in America last year, before revisiting it again in class this year, which gave me an additional perspective on how the show is staged, or how it "should" be staged.
Early Plays was an assignment for my Theories of Acting/Directing class, but my literary background really helped, because I was prepared for the heavy dialect in the text of these early plays (for example, I read The Hairy Ape recently in one of my classes so I knew what to expect), in addition to being familiar with O'Neill's general body of work. However, we were there to observe the differences in Richard Maxwell's direction of these two companies in comparison from what we'd read about the directing theories of Elizabeth LeCompte and the Wooster Group. In addition, we had the opportunity to speak with Maxwell after the show and ask lots of questions about his process and pick his brain about the piece, and about combining the companies of actors. There's something about seeing a unique piece of theater that brings to light lots of different theories better than you could ever understand by reading a piece of theoretical text.
Whether what you see is good or bad, it's an example -- it's better than the picture in your head. If you see a bad Shakespeare production (which I have), why was it bad? What would you have done differently if you were directing? Was the concept its problem, or just poor casting?
As I said in a previous blog, you learn more from seeing theater than from anything else (even bad theater.) It's always good to see a production of something you're studying in class. But don't forget, new plays are important too! I also recently saw Leslye Headland's Assistance, which has been stuck in my mind since I saw it. There was also a talkback with the playwright and the director afterwards, which was like a mini-classroom, adding some insight into the process of this show. This spring, we also have revivals of Death of a Salesman and A Streetcar Named Desire, which are must-sees for any theater students -- they're American classics. Admittedly, I don't know anything about Gore Vidal's The Best Man, so I will have to take myself to see that, and make my own classroom.