Theatricality and spectacle

I had the pleasure of talking with some students at Edinburgh University a few weeks back. One of the things we chewed over was the notion of theatricality versus spectacle. It’s something I’m still mulling so I decided to put down my thoughts and remembrances of that conversation really for my benefit but then thought maybe I’d blog about it too.

So the first thing we considered is theatricality – I spoke about how my experience of script reading for various theatres over the years meant the first question I ask of any theatre script is why is this a play rather than a telly or film script. What’s the thing that makes this uniquely theatrical? That doesn’t necessarily mean there has to be someone popping up through the trap door or flown in from the rafters, it could be as simple as a monologue – which is inherently theatrical to my mind as it’s one person speaking directly to the audience for an hour or so. Wouldn’t work on telly or film but in theatre can be majestic. I encouraged all the playwrights there to be bold in their theatrical scripts – to demand and imagine the impossible and not be constrained or worry about how the director would make it work. Write freely and worry about that stuff later.

On the subject of spectacle one of the many insightful students compared it to circus – feats that astound us- make us gasp. Visually and aurally exciting moments. So what’s wrong with those in theatre? Nothing. As long as they’re serving the play – I know, I would say that as I’m a writer but put that aside! I’m thinking about creating a collaborative holistic piece of theatre so if the high octane spectacular moment is written in to the text – is integral to the storytelling- then that’s perfect. Or if in production the director and creative team have a genius idea of how to translate and crystalise something vital in the play’s dna into – not just the set but a theatrical moment – then that’s theatre at its best.

What’s problematic for me is when productions employ spectacle that isn’t integral to the play and then this is masqueraded as theatricality. A director seeking to make his or her mark – make their role in proceedings clear or indeed cover up difficulties in the play might well do this. But if writers aim to make their plays truly theatrical then directors won’t strain for ways to make them so in production.

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