Fire in the Theater
The below short essay was originally published on All Beaches Experimental Theater's blog, Writing in the Wings, for the occasion of the blog's launch. You can view the original with show images here.
“O, for a muse of Fire!” begins Shakespeare’s Henry V. And it didn’t just mean fiery passion or kindled inspiration. Apart from real flame torches and candles to indicate dark scenes performed in streaming sunlight, it’s believed that at the Globe, Shakespeare’s battle scenes utilized real cannon fire. No wonder then when the thatch-roofed “O”-shaped building succumbed to its muse of fire. This was storytelling over safety.
The Victorians were famously obsessed with verisimilitude. 19th century London theaters might advertise that the china shop set would have no less than five hundred pieces of authentic china. Or perhaps a dozen certified Pamplonan bulls would be present to destroy it — for one night only, limited engagement!! This was spectacle over storytelling.
Jon Jory’s “Tips for Directors” — a typical text in undergraduate directing classes beloved as much for its slim spine as its timeless wisdom — says that a performance will be more compelling with “extraordinary use of objects, cloth, wind, water, or fire” (page 194, item 8). He’s talking about using spectacle to safely serve story. “Spectacle” (opsis in Aristotle’s Poetics) doesn’t need to be as spectacular nor Victorian as a sinking Titanic. It could be a figure emerging in a haze of fog, a whole company in sunglasses, a deluge of paper pamphlets from the ceiling at the end of act two, or a single, handheld lantern cutting through the dark.
Each of these examples has been seen on ABET’s stage (maybe you recognize them too?) and obviously made an impression on me — an image imprinted on my mind that I can pull up as easily as a photograph on my phone. But far more real, because there was some risk associated with each of those moments in the moment. I personally love sitting in the audience and thinking, “Oh, that’s real glass! Good, look how careful she’s being. Yes, that’s just right,” or smelling the chemical whiff of a freshly lit match on stage. Of course we politely suspend our disbelief about plenty of things that happen in the theater out of courtesy for our own safety and reverence for the power of the collective imagination, but a reasonable risk? A single candle lit onstage is no reason to cry, “Fire in the theater!” But it ignites our primal intrigue. It grounds and fascinates us so we are fully invested in the rest of the play-pretend — that these people are in love, that someone was murdered offstage, that at any moment now everything we know could change. (Which is why you might attend theater over a movie in the first place, right?)
Of course, blind reverence for reality onstage often doesn’t work. I directed a play at The 5 & Dime that called for a goldfish to be beached on the tabletop by its keeper. It’s a symbol of the woman’s failure, not a ritual piscine murder (hello, PETA). We found a mechanical fish that would wriggle uncannily enough to interest the audience but reassure onlookers that there was no cause for concern. And there can be powerful magic in capturing a moment rather than recreating it. (Floyd Collins‘ cave was in the light in his eyes and the echo of his voice —truly fake rock formations would have brought us no closer to his soul.)
“Safety first” would have been poor prologue for Henry V. But assuming it’s a common refrain among your director and crew, allow me to celebrate the muses of fire and other less predictable elements onstage. Especially if the space is intimate enough for it to matter — and at ABET, we are blessed, it is and does — I applaud to see actual water in that pitcher, real mud caking a costume, tons of kitsch on those shelves, and a glass oil lamp lit by the actress before your very eyes. (Just make sure she also has a back-up match. Or five.)