Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Wherein I Catch a Visually Transmitted Disease

‘Tis early evening along the Thames crowds huddle under the eaves of city hall, shrugging into their coats and gazing anxiously out into The Scoop whilst eyeing the sheeting rain in gross suspicion. “The performance will continue as planned despite the rain as long as it is safe for the actors to do so,” assure the cheerful Scoop staff. The only thought as the rain shrouds the city with its inky damp, “Why on earth would anyone act under open sky during such ghastly weather for free?”
The answer is simple: they are infected with a virus. It is an all-consuming love that – once shared – quickly catches and becomes a contagion of passion. Passion for the play, passion for the art, a passion that they hope will spread on visual contact and enter the mind on a sound wave to be born within others. There in the mind it will slowly wait, hosted and warm until it germinates into being. It is the ardent hope that symptoms will manifest in the appreciation of the performing arts and quite possibly addiction.

No knowledge or awareness is needed to recognize this intellectual infection – it is evident in the performance. Every movement, every utterance a small tribute to a love that breathes vitality into each scene as the story spreads out, a vaporous gas infecting everyone who breathes in the spectacle. Am I taking this infectious metaphor too far? I don’t believe so. The idea that passion and love of the arts is contagious is an old one that has been spoken of and celebrated throughout the ages. Indeed, it is this concept that has kept the Scoop running free of charge to the public for the past ten years.
An open air theatre sunk into the ground as part of More London, the Scoop performs free theatre shows four nights a week. Not believing that theatre should be only for those who can afford it, but for those who would enjoy it, the staff at the Scoop rely heavily on donations from those who are entertained and appreciate their shows. As a result, the actors do their best to make sure that their shows remain engaging and contagious whilst simultaneously appealing to an audience of wide array.

For instance, during the month of July, Steam Industry Free Theatre presents at The Scoop at More London the Oresteia Trilogy. The entire trilogy is performed each night, but performed in different styles to make them more accessible to the audience. The first play, The Trojan Horse, starts at 6:30pm and is thus more likely to get families with children attending the performance. So the actors endeavor to make the drama of the war between Greece and Troy a comedic musical instead.

To enhance the effect of the comedy, the actors utilize the spatial design of The Scoop to their advantage. What makes this easy for the actors is that The Scoop is essentially a theatre-in-the-round where there is no raised stage in front of an audience, but where there is a clear oval floor space in the middle of the arena surrounded by stadium seating. This design simultaneously poses a challenge and an opportunity to actors who can now be seen on stage from all angles and must be conscientious not to alienate any particular group even as interaction with audience members is made easier.

This is very different from stage performances in a closed theatre in that the fourth wall is constantly being ripped down and ignored in favor of charming the audience. For example, when Odysseus, Agamemnon, and his brother are trying to gather 1,000 ships for their attack on Troy they realize that they are short by several hundred ships so they went running around asking the audience for ships. (“You, the queen of the Amazons, how many ships can you lend us for battle? And you, brave demi-god who fought against the Minotaur and vanquished him with your might, how many ships can you send to us?”) What makes this work so well is that all of the volunteers that they try to get to participate are children who have no qualms about getting involved and are possibly not even aware that a fourth wall exists and so do not mind when it is broken down. In one scene, where Agamemnon is fighting with his wife about whether or not women should be allowed on the voyage, his wife suggests that there be a competition between a woman and Agamemnon. Agamemnon agrees and is then forced to arm wrestle a volunteer from the crowd who happens to be the six-year-old queen of the Amazons and of course, the Amazon queen with the strength of ten men wins (much to her laughter and delight). This is also very different from a traditional stage setting in that those theatres don’t have a lot of children who attend their shows (unless it is a show that is specifically geared towards them, such as the Mary Poppins Musical or The Lion King).

Of course, The Trojan Horse doesn’t appeal to just kids either. This musical comedy also incorporates adult humor into each bit so that it is not just the kids laughing every few minutes, but the grown-ups as well. This only serves to the actors’ benefits because the sounds from within the theatre (including the audience’s reaction) can be heard by anyone walking by and just may peak their curiosity enough that they might just stop to see what all the fuss is about.

The second play, Agamemnon, is performed in an entirely serious manner, but was placed in a modern setting. Thus all of the characters wore current clothes and military uniforms as they returned home from the Trojan War. This performance didn’t have too much audience interaction, but it still managed to use the layout of the theatre to engage the audience by making dramatic entrances and exits in three different places and even using the top area surrounding The Scoop as a balcony, mountain or wall top. Still, even without a lot of actor-audience interaction the sheer proximity of the actors (and the fake blood splashed everywhere) to the audience was able to keep me riveted. (It would have to, in order to keep me sitting in the rain to watch the performance.)

Overall, the Oresteia Trilogy performed at The Scoop was fun, entertaining, and truly infectious. So much so, that when I left, I placed a handful of coins in the contributions box so that next year someone else can share the joy and pleasure of theatre.

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