I have always believed that the success of a piece of theatre rests in how it engages its audience. I believe that this goes hand in hand with the author’s purpose; after all, musical comedies engage us much differently than investigative, journalistic-style pieces do (let’s contrast The Laramie Project with, say, Singin’ in the Rain). If the piece manages to capture the audience’s attention and invoke some sort of reaction (of any kind; remember, not every piece needs to be liked, per se), then I consider the creators as having done their job. Passive observation is the worst possible result.
I recently saw two productions that were successful in this regard, in several different ways.
The first was the Broadway revival of Tennessee Williams’s masterpiece A Streetcar Named Desire. This production is notable because the cast is racially diverse: Stanley, Blanche, and Mitch are all played by African Americans (Blair Underwood, Nicole Ari Parker, and Wood Harris, respectively), and Stella is played by Daphne Ruben-Vega, who is Hispanic. This decision, made by both the producers and director Emily Mann, was not without its share of controversy; after all, the characters as Williams wrote them are all white.
Given the controversy and the mixed reviews, I was anxious to see the production for myself. I knew as soon as I walked into the Broadhurst Theater last weekend that I was in for a different experience—unlike most of my New York theatre-going outings, I was the only white person in my section of the audience. And, judging purely on the confused comments of those around me, most of my fellow viewers were not regular theatre attendees (this is based on overheard scenes of confusion as to how the seating numbers worked, whether drinks were allowed in the theater, and even what a playbill was. While I’m certain that several of them did in fact go to the theatre on a regular basis, some of them had clearly never stepped inside of a Broadway theater before). Many openly discussed their excitement to see Blair Underwood on stage—clearly the star billing worked.
As the production unfolded, I began to realize that I was sitting among an audience that I would not usually expect at a Tennessee Williams production. For one thing, they were vocal. Stanley’s rude remarks to his wife were met with outcries of disapproval, and when Stella stood up for herself, the people around me cheered. Blanche’s lies were met with loud laughter—I had never truly realized how funny the play was before. Finally, my favorite reaction of the night belonged to the woman behind me who, when the nurse brought out the straitjacket at the end of the play, let out a loud “oh hell no they didn’t!” Based on the gasps I kept hearing as the play progressed, many in the audience were unfamiliar with the story. Clearly, though, that didn’t stop them from investing their attention and their emotions into the production in front of them. When the performance ended, everyone leapt to their feet, elated from the experience they had just had. All qualms with star casting aside, it brought people to the theater, and they had a great experience. They were engaged with a story that they might not have been engaged with, and all it took was the courage of the producers to present the play in a manner that directly appealed to them.
The second production was engaging in a different way. This was SoHo Rep’s new interpretation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya. What’s special about this production is that the script is an original translation by the successful playwright Annie Baker. Rather than use an existing English adaptation, Baker began with a word-for-word Russian-to-English translation, and then shaped that translation into living dialogue incorporating her own playwrighting aesthetic. The production was directed by Sam Gold and staged as if it all unfolded in an attic. The theatre was literally transformed into an attic; with the audience seated all over the place on carpeted risers and cushions, and actors walking naturally all over the room as if no one else was there. It was certainly one of the most intimate productions I’ve ever seen.
What struck me the most about this piece was how American it sounded. I’ve seen Chekhov plays performed before, as well as other English translations, and there is always a noticeable foreignness to the dialogue being spoken. In this case, the most foreign sound to my ears was the Russian names of the characters—they stuck out plainly from what was otherwise a completely familiar soundscape. This take on Chekhov seems to be currently in fashion; a similar venture is currently occurring at the Steppenwolf Theatre Company in Chicago, where Pulitzer-winning playwright Tracey Letts recently translated The Three Sisters (and what I wouldn’t give to see that production!). It was certainly a different experience to be told as an audience member that rather than presenting a foreign translation of a foreign piece, here is the same story and the same basic language, but catered to the world that you know. The result was that I was able to interact with Uncle Vanya in a brand-new way, and my appreciation of the play itself only grew because of that experience.
As theatre companies nationally continue to work on developing sustainability, it is refreshing to me to see artists cultivating work specifically for their known audience, or to try an bring a new audience in. As a theatre artists, I found it thrilling and inspiring, and as an audience member, I appreciated it tremendously. I hope that this trend continues, so that stories such as A Streetcar Named Desire and Uncle Vanya aren’t lost, but simply made more personal.
What are your thoughts on this recent trend? Have you seen anything recently that engaged you in a brand new way? What was that like? Please share your experiences in the comments below.
To read more about the current Broadway Revival of A Streetcar Named Desire, click here.
To read more about the current off-Broadway production of Uncle Vanya, click here.
By James Kennedy