Isaac Walter and Professor Rodger Sorensen, Theatre & Film
Both Peter Brook1 and Jerzy Grotowski,2 two of the most important theatre directors and theoreticians of this century, have stated that the basis for all theatre is the actor/audience relationship. It is what makes theatre a unique art form. Without this relationship you may have another art form, such as film, but the real power of theatre comes from actors and audience communing with one another.
Any experiments in theatre, then, have to be experiments with that relationship: what strengthens and facilitates it, or weakens and blocks it. I believe that as actors become open and responsive to each other it will prepare them to have a similar kind of open relationship with the audience. I chose to explore that premise by establishing a company of actors, playwrights, composers, and designers who would work together for a year to develop a show that would ultimately express who they were together as a company. We would then perform it and invite an audience to be a part of it with us.
One of the initial important choices was the selection of the piece that could serve as the vehicle to bring the actors and audience together in performance. Since the production was being done at BYU (where the common thread the vast majority of the students and audiences share is the Gospel of Jesus Christ), it seemed highly appropriate to select something that was gospel oriented. I picked The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis because it presented a shared theology in a story format that was easily adaptable to the stage.
The next and definitely most important step was finding the right people to be involved. I needed people who would be willing to sacrifice their own egos in order to create something that expressed all of us together. I particularly wanted to have a production team of technical experts that could be involved with the actors in the development of the show. In this way the sets and lights could reflect the designers’ relationship with the actors as much as the acting would reflect it. However, I found it impossible to find designers who were willing to spend that much time in a rehearsal setting. The designers had a second-hand relationship with the actors through me, the director, and their designs reflected that.
I had a little more luck with the composer and scriptwriter. The composer particularly became extremely excited about the entire process and participated fully in all rehearsals. In fact, he participated so much and was so good, that I ultimately asked him to act in the show as well. Our scriptwriter was slightly less involved, and though she came to a few rehearsals during the first semester, her relationship with the company was mainly developed after the script was finished.
Finding actors who were willing to give two semesters of their time for a show was also extremely difficult. I held several auditions to find the right people who were willing to commit for the length of time required. Even so, several actors dropped out at the end of the first semester and had to be replaced.
The time with the actors was divided into two kinds of activities: 1) relationship building and 2) show development. My plan was to spend the first semester working on our relationship with each other (making sure it was open and responsive) and then spend the second semester developing the show out of that relationship. After more or less carrying out this plan I realized it was a mistake. After the first month and a half of rehearsal our relationship as a company was extremely strong. At that point we should have moved forward into developing the show. I didn’t do that and as a result we lost momentum and some of the actors became bored. I think that is why we lost so many after the first semester. Then when we had to introduce new actors into the company at the beginning of the second semester, we ended up spending a good deal of time integrating them into company and getting them up to speed with the rest of the group. Subsequently, we were rushed to get the show ready for production. If we had continued with the momentum we began with at the beginning of the first semester I believe we would have had a show closer to what I initially imagined.
That is not to say that our final performance was by any means bad. To the contrary, judging from the audience response, it was extremely good. My dilemma was that what I wanted to have happen with the actors—that openness and responsiveness—was just barely beginning to come through in the acting. If I had used the time more effectively we could have moved further in that direction by the time we reached the performance.
As it was, the audience greatly enjoyed the show. Every single performance was sold out days in advance. From talking with audience members after the show I got the impression that it made them think. One friend of mine told me that he and his date went away from our matinee performance and spent the entire afternoon talking about it. Other people described it as “alive.” Still others talked about seeing themselves again and again in the show.
Not many people talked specifically about the relationship with the actors, but I believe that one of the reasons that the audience was able to have such a strong connection to the show was because of the relationship the actors had with each other and the way they invited the audience to be a part of it with them. The one thing I did notice was that the moments that were the most often mentioned, that had the greatest affect on the majority of the audience, happened in the scenes with the actors who had come the farthest towards developing open and responsive relationships with each other. I don’t think that’s a coincidence.
1. Brook, Peter. The Empty Space, Atheneum: New York (1968) p. 9.
2. Grotowski, Jerzy. Towards a Poor Theatre. Eyre Methuen Ltd.: London (1968) p. 19.
3. Special thanks to the Department of Theatre and Film at BYU for all of its support.