Nathan Thomas-Scene4 Magazine

Nathan Thomas

It Was Twenty Years Ago Today

I have here a poll done by the people at Pew, asking folks about whether or not people like them are better off or worse off than fifty years ago.  People like me?  So, I started to think about what has changed in the last fifty or so years in the theatre.

I can’t talk about fifty years from first-hand experience, but this year does mark my 35th year as a professional in the theatre.  Back in the winter of 1981 I mounted the stage as a party-goer in a production of A Christmas Carol.  I sang Christmas carols each night as I wandered around the stage with a slightly older woman on my arm – very entrancing for a kid who wanted to make this his life.

So what’s changed?

There are some obvious changes, of course.

Fifty years ago would have been 1966.  In those days we were much closer in time to the classic musicals of my youth.  The original production of Man of La Mancha was still playing on Broadway.  Andrew Lloyd Webber had yet to write Joseph…Dreamcoat with Tim Rice.  Cats (now and forever!) was not even close to being a twinkle in anyone’s eye.

Bobby and Dr. King were both still alive.  We hadn’t touched the moon yet.  Gas stations offered premiums – like drinking glasses and plates – to come buy their leaded fuel, since it was so cheap.

The most obvious thing was the use of the act curtain in those days.  Occasionally I still see a show that uses an act curtain, but it’s unusual enough to be news.  I have to explain to young folks what acting a scene “in one “ is.  Youngsters, in the old days in a musical there was something that actors did after a number.  The actors would move onto the apron and act a short scene while the curtain would be brought down behind them.  Behind the curtain, stage hands would furiously work  to change the scenery.  Then the curtain would raise and the actors would step upstage into another scenic location.

These days people do musicals on thrust stages and in-the-round without any trouble.  But in the old days, it couldn’t be done without a curtain.

The loss of the act curtain ushered in the age of the “cockroaches.”  If there’s a need for a change of scenery, the lights go down, and a crew of figures dressed all in black (it doesn’t often appear to matter how they’re dressed – only as long as it’s black!) swarm the stage.  As the lights come up on the scene, the figures in black scurry away like so many cockroaches.

One of the things I’ve not quite understood is why black is the main consideration for stage hands?  I’ve seen a crew of cockroaches in which every person had a different style of clothing so that the conglomeration was weird.  But they were all dressed in black. 

Once I directed a production of Skin of Our Teeth in an arena space.  At the end of the play the set needs to transform – instantly,  natch – from war-torn to the precise look of the opening of the play.  I asked the crew to be dressed in all white from top to toe with bright white light on the scene change.  Why not?

Of course, the other major change has to do with the audience.

The first major change in the audience happened more than 500 or so years ago.  Speaking loosely (so my historian friends don’t get their undies in too much of a bunch), the audiences of ancient Athens and ancient Rome were a mixed audience. The folks who sat on the hillside and watched the plays of Aeschylus were a mixed group.  There were the top folks of the county and slaves.  There wasn’t a disparity between  theatre for different groups of folks.   The shows were meant for the whole lot of them, take them as they may. 

Likewise in Rome.  We have evidence that the places where folks saw shows in Rome had places for rich and poor and slave alike.  Certainly the rich were able to hire entertainers of all kinds for private occasions.  But the shows in the public theatre were meant for the whole swath of the city.

It wasn’t until the Renaissance that we start to see a regularized separation between theatre for the rich and well-educated and theatre for everyone else.  When theatre started going inside, it meant you could keep some people out. A better situation for the people using this situation to better their finances, but it starts to divide the audience.

And so it is in our day.  Different theatre for each niche of the population. Low-brow theatre.  High-brow theatre that a majority of folks find boring or off-putting.  Very rarely do we have a place where the cognoscenti and the great unwashed can watch and enjoy the same show.  Maybe Shakespeare.  Everyone loves a good production of Romeo and Juliet, say.

But the thing that has changed in the audience is the question of how we deal with each other in a public space.

I think I speak for many people when I saw that it probably wasn’t a bad thing to lose the artificiality of putting on a suit or an evening gown and pearls to go see an evening of theatre.  More people feel that they can feel welcome in a theatre environment.

The question for most people is working out the issue of sound and light.  Should all phones be shut off and texting strictly disallowed?  Or should the theatre embrace the culture of folks as it is and learn to cope with the mid-show selfie?

I wish I had an answer to this.  But, as a people, we’re still working out how to deal with the etiquette of today’s technology.  What are the rules?  Even though people have been texting and posting to social media for years, it seems unclear about what the culture dictates. 

At some shows, a nice person will come and give a curtain speech (even though there’s no curtain).  The curtain speech will include instructions for the audience to pull out their phones and post their whereabouts to the world as a marketing help.  Then the audience is instructed to turn off their phones and put them away.  Some audiences are instructed to turn off the phones simply as they enter the theatre.

Either way, audiences tend to ignore these admonitions.  A “slow” moment on the stage and some audience members dive immediately for the phone.  A great moment happens, and some audience members pull out their phone to post that great feeling on Twitter. 

And as the lights on the stage fade to dark, lit screens dot the audience landscape as cockroaches swarm the stage and move the furniture as one of the poor crew-members drops a sofa leg on his foot. And the ensuing hopping up and down and whispered curses are all caught on video and instantly posted to YouTube.

They couldn’t do that at Man of La Mancha.

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Nathan Thomas has earned his living as a touring actor,
Artistic Director, director, stage manager, designer, composer,
and pianist. He has a Ph.D. in theatre, and is a member of the
theatre faculty at Alvernia College.
He also writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4.
For more of his commentary and articles, check the Archives

©2016 Nathan Thomas
©2016 Publication Scene4 Magazine




Volume 17 Issue 4

September 2016

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