17. RITUAL & THE ROUND
There was a moment during the run ofThe Ballad of R & J when we did something many theatres cannot accommodate—we moved the stage. In an attempt to create a more acoustically sound configuration, we shifted the stage ninety degrees and tucked it back into the lot a few more feet. It essentially enabled us to better bounce the actors’ voices off the walls. As we were moving the Show Truck, I remember saying to my stage manager, “This should solve one problem, but I’m sure I’m setting us up for another I can’t even fathom.” Sure enough, the next show sounded great and the sun glared into my actors’ eyes like never before. Somehow, we had blocked a show in the round where the cast was protected in our initial set up and blinded in the adjustment. Prior to the next performance, the actress playing Juliet sent a note asking how we’d address it. I wrote back that the actors could make small shifts to help each other out and we could address any larger shifts when we got to the site. In between that email exchange and the performance, our actor playing Prince and Apothecary had a family emergency, which meant the understudy had to go on—namely me. So, when I arrived at the site, I had a few things running through my head other than blocking adjustments. As I paced about, going over the lines in my head, Juliet approached me and, in her charming and cheeky way, asked, “So, is it cool if I ruin all your stage pictures by changing the blocking?” Unable to give it adequate thought, I replied, “Um, no.” I then took a beat as my brain shifted from lines to staging. I blocked for the round, which means I didn’t—nay, couldn’t—create stage pictures. Anything we created could be flipped or rotated just like the stage. So, I told her as much and to adjust as needed as long as her scene partners were on the same page. The conversation went quick and I moved on to running the Apothecary’s scene in my head. In retrospect, it was fortuitous that I had a front row seat as an actor for that show because I got to see how well the adjustments worked. The scenes weren’t played differently. They barely looked different. And yet entrances and exits were switched, crosses happened from B to A instead of A to B, and when you’d usually see backs you’d see faces (and vice versa). Not only was the storytelling strongly intact, but the actors made these changes with great facility. It made sense and yet it was eye opening at the same time.
I chose the round as the delivery configuration for the AMC for a few reasons, all dating back to my MFA thesis work. At the heart of the choice is the communal experience that it promotes and even requires. The audience not only witnesses the show, but they witness each other’s experience with the show as well. On the flip side, the great sacrifice for any director in the round is their ability to create a stage picture. There is no doubt that the control over what the entire audience sees can be an enormous visual tool. In the proscenium, in which is all the seats are facing one way towards the stage, the set up allows the director to best paint stage pictures. But, in the round, everyone has a different view, so it becomes more about making sure that each person in the audience is taken care of in some way; that everyone is receiving visual story, even though it isn’t exactly the same visual story. It’s quite the sacrifice, but for my money, worthy of the advantages it gives. To push the idea of the communal experience further, I believe the circle of the round creates a tone of sharing and supporting that cannot be achieved in more classic configurations. To explain, I turn to the childhood classroom since it’s something to which most of us can relate. The proscenium is the classic school set up of all the desks facing one way towards the teacher’s lectern. This is an environment of learning, which has a dominant status in the teacher and a servile status in the students. Now, think about show and tell. In my experience, that was the exhilarating time when all the students sat on the floor in a circle, while one sat in the middle and shared something they found personal, exciting, or interesting. That was an environment of sharing, togetherness, and equity. I decided that I want to tell my stories like show and tell, even if that sacrificed my control of the visual picture.
Now let me quickly roll back two years ago to the concert reading of The Ballad of R & J in Chicago. I’ve written before that when I watched the performance, with the actors predominantly at music stands, I realized that it didn’t need much more. This Myth could be wholly delivered with simple staging and I received feedback that this was because there was an inherent ritual in the story and the music. This idea has now become central to the idea of American Myth. The stories must be strong enough to thrive in the simplicity of ritual. Yet I must admit that ritual is one of those things that absolutely sounds right, but to articulate it further requires a quick peek at the dictionary. Skipping past the definitions centered around religion, these strike a chord:
6. a prescribed or established rite, ceremony, proceeding, or service:the ritual of the dead.
7. prescribed, established, or ceremonial acts or features collectively, as in religious services.
8. any practice or pattern of behavior regularly performed in a set manner.
Number 8 sounds a lot like theatre and I love bringing in the ideas of ceremony and prescribed acts from 6 and 7. With these definitions as a guide, our storytelling is delivered in a ceremony made up of a practice of behavior, performed in a set manner through prescribed acts. In the process of putting on The Ballad of R & J, I enjoyed framing the entire production of the piece—from setting up the stage, to the actors’ arrival on site, to the performance, and communing with the audience on and off stage—as an act of ceremony. This idea elevated our purpose from entertainment to potential catharsis and it’s that heightened mission that lives in the idea of new American Myths. But what are the “prescribed acts?”
When I think of ritual in other areas of performance, be it within religion, military, or even sports, the narrative focus is on action and not picture. It’s the action of communion, rifle drills, and offensive plays that deliver these stories. Within this idea of a show becoming a ritual, the stage picture becomes less important and the action is what drives the story. I would add that in all these areas of ritual, cadence has great importance as well. Be it in the chanting of mass, the march of a military parade, the beats of an offensive play, or the iambic pentameter of Shakespeare, the heartbeat is omnipresent and essential. I venture to conclude that in ritual, the heartbeat brings the life and the action delivers the meaning. I found in directing The Ballad that simplicity of movement won out nine times out of ten, which is why the blocking was so flexible to large changes. However, in that one out of ten laid a bounty of riches. In these moments, such as the opening gesture, the language gave way, but story still needed to be told. Those were moments of delight that elevated the ritual towards the sublime through their use of action and rhythm.
Adding this all up, I have found an essential correlation between ritual and the round in relation to American Myths. These Myths have a mission that requires the ceremony that ritual gives but are strong enough to sacrifice the stage picture in lieu of simple, prescribed actions and an omnipresent heartbeat. The round creates a delivery system to communal witnessing that forfeits a controlled image in lieu of simple, prescribed actions. Therefore, within the world of American Myth, ritual is of the essence and it can thrive in the round. What is so exciting about this retrospective thought experiment is that, while some of this was intuitive within the process of The Ballad, I can now consciously use these strengths in staging American Myth as we move forward.
With all of that said, and while we will return to The Ballad and the Show Truck soon enough, it’s time for a brand-new experiment. An Appalachian Christmas Carol, which we are about to begin work on, is a ceremony told in promenade (the audience walks through a site while the story is told) with an emphasis on controlled images that are delivered through toy theatre. With this new adventure we will investigate how a different delivery system interacts with the now better understood strengths of ritual.