Two weeks ago Ardent Partner Chris Comrie began discussing the journey from theatre to film. Read that here, in case you missed it.
It was a long process for me, but a very exciting one, figuring out how to convey the many different locations and situations in “Star” to an audience using only 6 actors, two chairs, a small box of props, a handful of minimal wardrobe variations per actor, a basic lighting setup, and sound. The fantastic thing about theatre though, especially this kind, is that it engages the audience’s imagination. The actors step onto the stage, the lights flood the space with warmth, a gobo throws a pattern of leafy shadows, the sound of birdsong creeps in, and we are in a park in summer. The viewer fills in all the required details from her imagination, and in so doing personalizes the experience. This use of one’s imagination is what makes reading novels and watching plays a more active experience than watching a movie, because movies tend to overwhelm you with details, whereas with theatre and novels you more fully personalize the experience by supplying your own details.
All too often when a play is adapted into a film, it is criticized for being “too stagey”. This usually means that it has limited locations and a lot of talking. SO WHAT? Is it boring, or not? That is the real question. Are you engaged?
Often someone who just saw one of our plays will ask me if it could be made into a movie. To me this is just bizarre. Did it hold your attention? Did you care about the characters? Did you enjoy it? Then, hell yeah, it would likely make a good movie. And, unlike an untried screenplay, the produced playscript has already proven it can work for an audience.
For me, transitioning from directing theatre to directing shorts and features was pretty easy. I think the real heavy lifting in either medium is effective storytelling. Most of the important work is the same. Understanding the story, and getting performances that work for the story. Movies add two major things: a movable point of view (the camera) and editing or the juxtaposition of shots. These are extremely powerful storytelling tools, to be sure. But even these techniques have their analogues in well-staged theatre. The viewer’s attention can be drawn wherever the director wishes by a shift in focus between the actors, which can also be augmented by lighting and sound cues. Images can be very powerfully juxtaposed as well. In fact, the style of theatre that Swan and I naturally work in is very much influenced by the language of film. For instance, Swan writes her plays in such a way that although dozens of characters are played by only a few performers, no performer ever leaves the stage. Instead, they “exit” to a designated neutral area surrounding the stage, and there make minor costume changes in plain view without drawing attention to themselves. Then they would assume a neutral “at ease” posture, waiting for their next entrance. This staging has many benefits. The audience is aware that the actor has changed character because it happened in front of them. The very precise positions of the waiting actors created in the audience a sense of potential energy in those locations, a basic anticipation. Most significantly, it allowed for instantaneous scene changes, even cinematic cross-fades as actors entered a new scene while others were still exiting. It’s thrilling when live theatre moves quickly.
Ultimately, theatre and film are very closely linked mediums, and freely applying and adapting the strengths of each to each can lead to great creative discoveries.