Friday, March 2, 2012

Doin’ It With The Lights On!

“We do it with the lights on.” If you’ve been anywhere near the Blackfriars Playhouse, you’ve heard that before. Universal lighting is a critically important component of Shakespeare’s original staging conditions in use at the American Shakespeare Center, and though it may not seem like a big deal, sharing the same consistently bright pool of light with the actors can be disorienting to a Blackfriars Playhouse first-timer. Modern audiences are used to being passive observers while in the theater – anonymous, hidden, and inconsequential to the action playing out on the stage. At the Blackfriars Playhouse, however, universal lighting draws the audience into the action in ways that can be unexpected, uncomfortable, delightful, hilarious, awkward, engaging or, most often, many or all of those things at once. 
            In Shakespeare’s day, universal lighting was not a choice but a fact. The primarysource of light was fire, so candles were in place in indoor theatres like the Blackfriars. Outdoor theatres could not be artificially lit at all – the stage was at the mercy of the elements and wind and rain are no friends to candles – and thusly plays were performed exclusively in the afternoon. Playwrights at the time had little notion of a passive audience in the same way we do today, because they were writing for acting companies who could see all of their spectators, and for spectators who could see each other. Authors built this audience-actor relationship directly into the plays in ways both subtle and obvious. Marked “asides,” where an actor speaks directly to the audience, did exist, as well as soliloquies, where a character speaks alone onstage. Since the audience knew the actor could see them, it stands to reason that soliloquies offered a chance for the character to ally with the audience or to make them the object of his speech. Shakespeare chose his moments with particular wisdom and clarity (a personal favorite: Iago’s “how am I then a villain?” from Othello), but he was by no means the only playwright taking advantage of that opportunity – this interaction with the audience is a consistent hallmark of the early modern dramatic period.
            Yet the progress of time marches on and universal lighting went the way of the Lords’ Chairs and the gallant stools. In 1638, Nicola Sabbatini wrote a book in which he suggested the idea of dimming the lights by lowering metal cylinders over the candles before the start of the play. The practice took off, and by the time gas and finally electric lighting had taken over the candlelit days of yore, the audience found themselves sitting behind a fourth wall, cut off from the actors by an invisible line of darkness. Playwrights adapted to this, writing new kinds of plays for the new conditions, and today the most common way to signal the start of any sort of performance is to dim the house lights. The audience expects to remain apart, anonymous, and silent.
            The American Shakespeare Center takes a lot of pride in crossing that invisible line. The actors announce it before every show: “Yes, ladies and gentlemen, you may notice the lights are on. They are going to stay on and at this level throughout the entirety of the performance, so the audience and the actors share the same pool of light. That way you can see us, we can see you, and you all can see each other. This is one of Shakespeare’s original staging conditions and it’s how we do every show here at the American Shakespeare Center, which is why we like to say, ‘We do it with the lights on!’” Cue thunderous applause and a reminder to turn off your phones.
            It can seem inconsequential after a while, and seasoned Blackfriars-goers may be immune to it by now, but the efficacy and unusualness of universal lighting is never more apparent than at a student matinee. Currently, Much Ado about Nothing runs Thursday mornings during the Actors' Renaissance Season to a house full of chattering teenagers – who manage to seem simultaneously excited and bored – who have less familiarity with the plot and the language of Shakespeare than some of our more seasoned patrons. Yet without fail they find themselves directly drawn in, usually with raucous laughter, by the actors reaching out to them both physically and linguistically. At one performance, when Miriam Donald Burrows (playing Beatrice) launched into one of her anti-husband tirades (this time focused on how a man with a beard is too much for her but a man without one may as well be a lady) she addressed her speech to a smooth-faced young man on a gallant stool. He laughed and blushed, and his friends up in the balcony hooted and hollered because they knew him, and that made the jokes funnier The girls sitting next to him laughed nervously because they knew they might be next (indeed, Ben Curns’s Benedick sat on a few of them later on). The whole audience tightened and leaned in with the delight of shared experience. They paid closer attention because the actors spoke the words not only to them but about them, and they understood better because of it. Much Ado shows in its own gulling scenes that the best way to make somebody listen to you is to talk about them; theater audiences are no exception.
            Freedom in theatrical interpretation is a wonderful thing, and these days we as a society have the technology and the leisure time to explore all kinds of staging options. There’s been an Othello performed on a bed made entirely out of television screens, and a Timon of Athens that strung up a net over the mouth of the Globe and had actors dressed as vultures vaulting through the air over the heads of the audience. Universal lighting is no longer the only choice, but it remains a strong one because it acknowledges the power of the audience to shape a production.

-Lia Razak

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