I’d like to talk about Rorschach Theatre’s Voices Underwater because two things about this production were interesting firsts for me. I like when that happens.
I’m not going to talk about the play itself. If we saw it together, we could talk about all kinds of things, but for the purposes of this post I’ll merely say that Voices Underwater is a play about Southern ghosts, race, drowning and being trapped, among other things. Here’s what was cool and different for me: I was completely drawn into the world of the play before it even started and was pleasantly creeped out for most of the show. This never happens! Two overarching things contributed to this experience:
Thing 1: Creepiness
Voices Underwater is the first stage show that has ever given me scary-movie-grade goosebumps. I’ve been told that “theater can’t be scary,” so it made me pretty happy. Theater, being representational, requires a good deal of suspension of disbelief, which of course makes illusions like physical violence, supernatural horror and sci-fi difficult to pull off. In the case of Voices Underwater, all it took was an opening moment of good light cue timing and an actress’ very, very quiet entrance. The “lightening reveal” is a common horror film gag, and I was really thrilled to see how well it worked on stage. Add this to a very specific, well-used sound and light design and the fact that the audience is basically part of the attic set itself—I felt like a fellow ghost looking in on the action. Rain beat down on the roof and eerie shadows appeared behind the rafters. Generations of ghosts haunted the space inhabited by the living without confusion or clutter. Characters moved around the nooks and crannies of the small set in both darkness and light, sometimes unnoticed, sometimes deliberately. I’m always amazed at how much you can do with audio and smart lighting. Imaginative tech sets us apart as an artform—if only every director understood this. Please, take advantage of it.
Thing 2: Immersion
The performance experience began as soon as I walked into the theater lobby. Rorschach’s co-artistic director, Randy Baker, gathered groups of ten people at a time to let into the theater space, so from the get-go, I knew something was being done differently. My fellow band of patrons and I were led to the theater in a roundabout way, winding through a room and a long hallway—everything decorated haunted house-style with gauzy sheets, old furniture, dusty books, flickering candles, the works—to an “attic” door that creaked open into the playing space. “Look at anything you want, walk around, pick things up,” Randy had told us. And since we were invited to be curious, we were. We all roamed the set, sitting on the big bed and examining its white quilt, picking up books, a letter, a postcard, looking at pictures and flyers, antiques of various sizes and functions. In the background, crickets chirped loudly.
These 20 minutes before the show were more valuable than I ever would’ve thought. They made me ready for the show—they brought me into the world of the play, got my imagination going, and gave me a ton of information about the story I was about to see. Before the lights went down, I knew:
- We’re in the South, in the attic of an old house.
- Someone lived in the room, probably a woman.
- It’s nighttime.
- The house is haunted.
- Property has been transferred from someone named Jennifer to someone named Emma.
- A woman is dead.
- “Jennie” lived in the 1920′s.
- Someone in the story was in or had ties to the KKK.
- Something about the story has to do with the Civil War.
Needless to say, when I did eventually sit down, I was chomping at the bit to find out the answers to my myriad questions.
I know this is simplistic stuff, but I couldn’t help thinking of “The Haunted Mansion” ride at the Disney parks. I’m not talking about subject matter or special effects here, I’m talking about suspension of disbelief. This is what Disney parks are going for, and they’re really, really good at it. Their task is to get you, who has just bought a Goofy cap and eaten a hot dog, to believe you’re in a haunted New Orleans mansion. It might not work as well if you just walked in off the street. So you wait in line in a graveyard, actors in period costumes say weird things to you in character, and you are herded into a creepy parlor. Then, in groups, you get onto an elevator and are shut up with an opening monologue that sets the story and tone. When the elevator doors open (unless you’re a total ass who hates fun) you’ve been properly prepped for pretend.
Theater isn’t Disney, but it still requires imaginative work from the audience. Film doesn’t—it requires that you “sit back, relax and enjoy the show.” I wish people wouldn’t use this line in their curtain calls. It releases the audience of any responsibility when they should be actively participating in the experience: going to the land of make-believe and giving of their creative energy. Too many theaters build sets instead of environments. Too many directors expect the audience to sit down and immediately absorb the play without any context, clue or welcome. And how sad that many theater buildings make you feel like you’re in a museum or a convention center. Why is theater so often uncreative? Why so unapologetically un-fun? What should be an imagination-stirring, stimulating experience is more often like a long, itchy afternoon at Sunday School.
I’m well aware that creating an intricate world in the way that Rorschach did won’t work for every theater company, space or show. But it’s something to think about in either broad terms, or in practical terms such as how you design and light your lobby, what people see and hear during preshow, what the theater itself looks like, how and when the show starts, and what the audience is and is not allowed to access, see, know, touch and connect with. Humans are curious—give them a chance to explore and inquire, and they probably will.