In Defense of the Small Theatre


A popular phrase in the theatre addresses the generally accepted philosophy of a regularly working actor: There are no small parts; merely small actors. I confess to you now -- I have not even a small idea what this is supposed to mean. It has been quoted at me my entire life, and I have gone from bafflement to frustration and back again pondering the ambiguity of the saying. (Most theatre traditions seem intentionally ambiguous; the Freemasons have nothing on us.) Does it mean the actor that worries over the size of his or her part is a small-minded individual? Does it mean a part comes across as small only when the actor lacks sufficient panache with which to fulfill it? Does it in fact mean, "Listen kid: Ya' gotta start somewheres..."? (My theatre-authority inner-voice always sounds like a cigar-chomping box-office manager from the '40s Bronx.) I smile, and accept, and usually think, Well, at least so-and-so's using theatre terms, so the form can't quite be on its dying gasp...

This weekend past I had the opportunity to see two shows, which inevitably invites comparison. One was rather modest in scale, the other a hugely financed Broadway play, transplanted from London. Now, these are not forces I consider to be in any sort of opposition to one another. Are Broadway shows a threat to regional theatre? God, no. Does regional theatre stand for some kind of principle against big-budget shows? Nope. So why am I writing about them together? What on earth could the Electric Theatre Company's production of The Dining Room have to do with Donmar Warehouse's of Hamlet?

Apart from both plays dealing with the passing of a way of life in some larger sense, very little. My comparison comes from a feeling of renewed appreciation for more intimate theatrical settings. It's very convenient, of course, for me to favor smaller theatres. ETC is where I do most of my work, after all, with its 99ish seats and relatively low-ceilinged performance space. Amor fati, as they say. Yet my appreciation of the venue in general goes beyond that, to much more objective criteria. I have to admit that the budgets are paper thin, the productions can be rocky and unrewarding as often as they are surprisingly professional and transportive -- this is the smaller theatre. Nothing is tried and true, not even the occasional Neil Simon imperative. I even love circus, and would like nothing more than to rig up ETC with trapezes and silks and slides, and it ain't gonna happen any time soon. Broadway can do that. I've seen it. Broadway can spend thousands of dollars on textured paint alone.

My biggest complaint about the production of Hamlet is one I would normally quickly let go of: to wit, the set. Who cares, right? Hardly the focus of any serious lover of Shakespeare. Yet it especially bothered me for its grandiose melancholy. The set was essentially very minimal: Virtually no furniture, except for moments when modest thrones were brought out on a small platform, and all was on stage level, except when a few panels were removed to accommodate the grave-digging scene. Huge, granite-looking castle walls ascend on all three sides of the playing area, with a similarly grandiose door at the back. The trouble with all this, as I saw it, was that it felt to me like the play was being dwarfed by gloomy nothingness. They achieved some very nice visual moments with snowfall outside the door, and shafts of light or the odd curtain, but for the most part the minimalism and darkness served not to aid the story but to point up how out of place such a human drama felt as it took place in a giant theatre. I would have loved to see the exact same show...only closer.

In The Dining Room, A.R. Gurney winds his exceedingly clever, heartfelt and economical way through various stages of dining room culture in America. The play is a standard, really, of theatre departments and regional theatres -- very accessible and good for a small cast. I performed in a shortened version myself in high school, one of the first shows I did there. The ETC production was very good, honoring all the humor notes and serious moments with equitable specificity without losing touch with the audience, nor playing it too out. What struck me the most about the show, however, was how inviting it felt. Hamlet worked rather hard at making us feel that we were involved in the action -- starting off with an image of a mourning Hamlet alone (or with us) in the middle of that huge stage, keeping him close to the proscenium throughout and even going so far as to put us on Polonius' side of the curtain for his eventual murder. Hamlet wanted us involved, but had to fight for it. Dining Room had us involved simply because we felt we were in the same room.

I am not saying that a theatre being small in scale or structure is a virtue unto itself. The theatre created there still needs to be and do good for its community, and certainly Broadway has to power to influence a far greater (in size, that is) community than any regional outfit. However, comparing these close experiences have allowed me to formulate a theory of which I'm fond. It's widely proposed that live theatre is dead or dying, and I can see many an example to support this belief. I don't believe it, personally, because I believe live theatre will always exist for humanity in some form or other as a part of what defines it. (That, and because I remain unmoved by the argument that "fiscally nonviable" equates to death.) However, there's little use in denying that theatre is rather unappreciated by the majority, at least as compared to its former glories. It is sad, for those of us who love and respect it, to see that our love is rare, but rare it is. We'll always be engaged in some degree of uphill battle to let theatre live. I acknowledge that struggle, the Sisyphean CPR, if you will.

Here is my theory: In this state of affairs -- and I doubt very much this is the first time theatre has had to widely fight for its right to party -- what matters most, what makes the most difference and does the best things for people, is so-called small theatre. There is where you'll feel your life changed. There is where a show fulfills its full potential, and where the dialogue really matters to all involved. Yes, there's every possibility that you'll be bored out of your mind or not believe in a moment of it, and that horrible risk is not levied at all by spectacular effects or the relative proximity of movie stars. But if you remember what it feels like to be opened up by a story, if you weigh the risk against the possibility, small theatre is the best bet. The possibilities in a space of a hundred or so are thousands of times greater than in a space of thousands. There is no small act of theatre, only small responses to it. In short (har har), small theatre is really, really damn important.

I'm thrilled to realize that.
 
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