The following short essay was published at All Beaches Experimental Theatre's blog, Writing in the Wings, for the occasion of the theatre moving to a new location. You can view the original with a gallery of past set images here.
They say when you take a test in the classroom where you learned the material, you should sit in the same seat you did daily to help with recall. Sometimes when you enter a new room, you get déjà vu until you can see it has the same dimensions and orientation as a long forgotten workspace or the foyer at your great aunt’s. Expectations and reality collide when you visit a site from glossy travel posters: the Eiffel Tower is larger than you expected, and you’d never imagined the tight twirl of stone stairways inside St. Paul’s Cathedral. The lighthouse seems taller from the railing than it was from the house and grounds; the top of the slide that you feared as a child can be easily reached as an adult. Even a throne in the corner might feel like a “time-out”, while kneeling at the roots of a tree makes the forest a cathedral.
Whether or not we realize it, the composition and use of space makes meaning across distances, over time, through us.
Viewpoints – Mary Overlie’s movement technique pioneered for use in the theater by Anne Bogart – teaches us that performance space has history, too. A smart director knows that downstage right is the most romantic area of a stage, and so much the better if your actor there beholds the beloved above in a balcony, opposite or unseen. When Emily first sat atop a ladder in Our Town in 1938, Juliet was with her across several centuries’ worth of Atlantic Oceans. (Likewise, audiences noticed, consciously or not, that George is on a different plane than Romeo.)
I have not seen all one-hundred-and-something shows Atlantic Beach Experimental Theater has put on at the Adele Grage Center, but the space has palpable history, a quiet conversation production to production.
Literally, I liked an element of Lee Hamby’s Merrily We Roll Along design so much that I retained the upstage benches and panels – not a part of my original concept – for Macbeth. Generally, the little aisles mean transition, or occasionally whole scenes and separate places; the stage right door is sometimes a door, sometimes a band shell where sound rolls into the audience; the upstage center door is sometimes gone; lines shouted off in the stage left hallway have a fabulous ring in the sound booth’s metal ladder or – if you can open the hall door quietly enough – a watery echo off the tile; the backstage area is tight, and experienced actors know which corner to stake out for a mirror, a shelf, access to a hanger for that costume. Audience members snugly tuck in front row feet, kindly ignore the rush of matinee sun from the center aisle entrance, and try to avoid the obstructed view of that second row seat off the downstage, audience right corner (you know the one). Our past experiences of space inform our expectations and evaluations, the capacity for and ability to surprise.
So what happens in a new space?
When ABET transitions to 544 Atlantic Boulevard, we mark a milestone move. As I prepare to direct Alice in Wonderland, I have a fresh capacity to surprise, but from my vantage point at the season’s end, I also get to watch fellow directors warm the place up and mold the audience’s expectations. We all have history to build on. A shared space and past conversation will carry over, across city blocks and from as far back as 1992… even as we dwell in new possibilities.
I’m looking forward to building on and looking back on all of All Beaches Experimental Theater’s history. The conversation continues.