Everything Is Already Something Week 44: Thinking Outside The Black Box

Allison Page, letting her imagination run free.

“Listen,” I said to the herd of 25 teenagers forming a semi circle around me, “What you’re doing here – you should really cherish it. Relish it. This giant stage, this beautiful theater, the multitude of sets, costumes, props, sword fights, spiral staircases, and sheer number of human beings on stage – get everything out of it that you can, because if you intend to go on as an actor this very probably isn’t going to be the kind of theater you work in frequently, if at all.”

All for one, and one for really fancy outfits!

All for one, and one for really fancy outfits!

They silently nod, whether they really get it or not. I definitely didn’t get that nugget of information when I was their age. I guess I just thought all theaters were totally enormous. I guess I also pretty much thought all productions were enormous. I remember the first time I read Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf when I was probably 16 and thought “THIS PLAY ONLY HAS FOUR CHARACTERS, WHAT’S GOING ON? THERE AREN’T, LIKE, BUTLERS OR ANYTHING.” It sort of blew my mind at the time. High school theater (and community theater, for the most part) is often a matter of spectacle. How many kids can we fit on the stage? Can we make up a bunch of parts so more people can be involved? We can build a rock-climbing wall, right? Let’s make a big horse for everyone to ride in the background. Guess what! EVERYONE’S GETTING WIGS! AND MATCHING DRESSES! 26 MATCHING DRESSES! Oh, add three balconies – that’ll give it a lil’ somethin’ for that one scene, and then we’ll strike the balconies completely.

A spiral staircase in progress...because, why not?

A spiral staircase in progress…because, why not?

But as an adult theater-maker, my life couldn’t be further from that. I work in black boxes, primarily. Which I’m not complaining about, by the way. I love it. And that’s been the majority of my experiences for the last nearly 7 years. So when I came into this great big prep school theater, it was almost a shock to my system.

The Three Musketeers is a gigantic show. Even if you haven’t read or seen it, I think you know it’s a biggie. Giant cast, giant costumes, giant everything. AND it’s 137 pages long which is sort of…yeah, giant. I mean, Act II opens with a MONTAGE. And in the montage, King Louis is supposed to be wearing a 17TH CENTURY BEEKEEPING OUTFIT and using a 17th century beekeeping device to…keep bees. There aren’t even any lines about it or any lines in that portion of the play at all. Just an absurd montage of sword fighting and overly precious costumes and props.

The last thing I directed before this? A minimalist sketch show with six performers and no props or costumes. I did that on purpose. Because I don’t usually love dealing with all this other stuff. Also – all this other stuff is expensive. But in this case, it’s not a cost I have to worry about, and it’s part of the package. (Thank goodness for the fight choreographer and costumer and tech crew.)

It’s been an adventure. Some days are better than others. It is unquestionably a tough job. I mean, I’m no coal miner or anything but wrangling this many teenagers would be a test of anyone’s patience. All hats off to teachers who do this every day, every year. I can’t imagine that. The kids are great, they really are. And they want to learn, and they want to succeed, but in a show like this, everyone has to be patient. And that’s not easy for any 16 year old. I’m tired. I’m definitely tired. I just spent two hours sitting on the floor looking at photos of people in costumes and trying to remember what worked for whom, what we’re missing, and what we suddenly realized we need and had totally neglected before.

Don't even act like you're not dying to wear a ridiculous ball gown.

Don’t even act like you’re not dying to wear a ridiculous ball gown.

In the end, I think this show is going to be awesome. Like, it will actually inspire awe. Because it’s just so absolutely huge. But when it’s over, I will be happy going back to the cozy theaters I usually call home. Making things that may be small, but remain mighty. Worrying about how we’re going to fit more than one desk in a tiny theater for a play with “DESK” in the title, so we kind of can’t avoid having them. Stretching the limits of what a dollar can buy us in terms of costumes. Oh, look, a perfectly good pair of overalls on the sidewalk! I’ll take it! Doubling up parts because we can only afford 5 actors – and even if we could afford more, we can’t fit them backstage. Using chairs instead of a couch. Having a mask represent a lion – a puppet represent another character. Whatever the thing is, we’ll find a way to pull it off. Black box theater is a world of substitutions. It keeps us on our toes. It forces us to be inventive, and I love it for that.

Exciting, eye-catching, over-the-top adventure plays began my love of theater, and over time I’ve learned to love many different types of plays. I want these kids to get everything they can out of this and every theatrical experience they have, which will shape and inform the types of artists they become, and the types of art they share with other people. That’s a big deal to the future of theater.

And their friends will probably think it’s super cool that they’re sword fighting and swinging across the stage on a rope. I mean, come on. It’s a teenage dream.

Allison Page is a writer/actor/director in San Francisco. THE THREE MUSKETEERS opens Nov. 7th. Tickets here: http://www.shcp.edu/events/three-musketeers-nov-07/

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