As some readers might be aware, my other job involves the theatre. So believe me when I say that nothing provides unexpected drama quite like live theatre and its lesser cousins, galas and proms. Any event in which a collection of disparate egos come together to provide grand spectacle (in spite of participants who may be unfamiliar with the material, not to mention trifling differences over goals and ethics, as well as sporadic technical mishaps) has the potential to transform a mundane effort into something legendary…for better or worse.
Even minor changes in technology may exacerbate the challenges faced by the creative staff. Although not conventionally thought of as a work of science fiction, Singin’ in the Rain depicts an industry transformed by technological progress. Adding soundtracks to movies begins as a simple technical challenge; it soon becomes clear there are unforeseen secondary complications, such as a formerly popular actor revealed to have a voice as euphonious as a disconcerted owl.
Actors are simultaneously necessary and frustrating. Without actors, theatre is merely creatively lit furniture. Add actors and we get issues like forgotten lines, misbegotten showmances, and clashing egos . I am sure that every director and stage manager in history must at some point have contemplated replacing the actors with remotely controlled robots, bound infernal spirits, or necromantically energized corpses. But the transition from living actors to pliable alternatives presents challenges; Walter M. Miller’s “The Darfstellar” documents the lengths to which living actors will go to keep their place at stage centre.
Leroux’s The Phantom of the Opera suggests an alternative method of producing better actors: mentorship. The Phantom uses his intimate knowledge of the performance space, his acting experience, his clarity of vision to mentor Christine, a talented but unfocused potential star. As so often happens in stories about the theatre, lesser minds do not properly appreciate the Phantom’s genius. The story takes an unexpectedly tragic turn as the lesser minds that surround the misunderstood visionary confound his pragmatic methods.
Robertson Davies (Canadian literary and beard icon) wrote about the stage in his Tempest-Tost. This book lacks the overt fantasy found in some other Davies novels, such as Murther and Walking Spirits, and in his short story collection, High Spirits. It does, however, heavily feature Shakespeare’s extremely fantastical The Tempest. A provincial theatre group, a collection of ambitious amateurs, have undertaken to perform this highly challenging play. I treasure this grand rant delivered by an irate stage manager on discovering that an actor has inconsiderately tried to off himself in mid-performance:
“What the hell do you mean by trying to kill yourself in the middle of a performance?” said she. “Before a performance, perhaps: after a performance, possibly. But what in the name of common sense possessed you to do it while you still have an entrance to make? Do you realize that there are eight hundred and thirty-two people out there, of whom seven hundred and ninety have paid admission, whose pleasure you have imperilled? Do you realize that you have very nearly ruined the effect of seven weeks’ rehearsal? Get up at once, and pull yourself together.”
The scene is very much played for laughs, but the callous disregard for the actor’s well-being is no news. I could tell you stories about stage managers that would turn your hair white. What struck me is the unbelievable attendance numbers: 832 (790 paying) patrons at an amateur performance of Shakespeare in a backwater Ontario town (a town one could probably bike across in five minutes )? Granted, the novel is set long ago, when there were fewer competitors for audience attention but still, 832 patrons at a single little theatre performance? That’s fantasy! Glorious fantasy.
You may think I’m down on actors. No! Not at all—special effects, set design, and direction are nothing without actors, who can make or break the play. Consider Stephen King’s Carrie. This ends with a high school prom, which is not a play, but…bear with me, here, folks…I’ve always thought that Carrie White should serve as an inspiration to actors. Under the right circumstances and with the right support, even the most unassuming ingenue can have their moment in the spotlight, inflaming their audience with a transcendent performance that will be spoken of in awed tones for decades. It might not be pleasant; it might even be downright traumatic. But in the end, isn’t that what theatre is all about…those immortal moments of transcendence?
In the words of Wikipedia editor TexasAndroid, prolific book reviewer and perennial Darwin Award nominee James Davis Nicoll is of “questionable notability.” His work has appeared in Publishers Weekly and Romantic Times as well as on his own websites, James Nicoll Reviews and Young People Read Old SFF (where he is assisted by editor Karen Lofstrom and web person Adrienne L. Travis). He is surprisingly flammable.