Spectacular Tech, But Does It Enhance Or Detract From The Tale….
April 23, 2012
The dinosaur's eloquent lesson is that if some bigness is good, an overabundance of bigness is not necessarily better….Eric Johnston
Chaos is a name for any order that produces confusion in our minds….George Santayana
I saw GHOST in London last February, and didn’t like it much, except for the physical/technical part of the performance, which I found stunning. New York was wonderfully portrayed in all its energy, the natives constantly moving, striving, which precisely fit the story line.
I saw only Act I of GHOST on Broadway, and liked it even less, I think because the amount of multimedia had been increased. If my memory is betraying me and this isn’t the case, then seeing the show from the balcony, as we did in London, made stunning that which seemed chaotic when seen from the orchestra seats we had for the Broadway production.
Since we didn’t stay for Broadway’s Act II, I won’t review the show, but GHOST started me thinking about the growing use of multimedia on stage, usage that’s bound to keep increasing as the tech gets more effective and less expensive.
In the case of the Broadway GHOST, the tech – while wonderful in itself – was so pervasive it cut into the story.
Some years ago, I used projections in a production of PAINT YOUR WAGON I directed. I’d guess around 30 projections in all. Some worked, some didn’t, and the consensus seemed to be that it was a noble experiment that wasn’t entirely successful.
Then, out of curiosity, I revisited the original production of RAGTIME, specifically to see and count the Wendall K. Harrington projections.
RAGTIME’s projections were an integral part of the story. I thought Ms. Harrington’s work was the best example to that date of effective projection use, and I think that’s still the case, 14 years later.
Those projections were greatly used to create scene locations and their atmosphere. They stayed in place in the background as the actors played the scenes in front of them.
Which is to say, they didn’t intrude, they enhanced.
All this I’d known, but what amazed me was that Ms. Harrington had used a grand total of only seven projections in RAGTIME, far fewer than I would have guessed. Each was a key element in the scene being played, none changed during its scene, and the spare usage increased their impact.
I think multimedia can add a lot to a show, if it’s done in the proper way, and in a suitable proportion.
Or it can sink the ship, as I felt it did for GHOST on Broadway.
Back in the nascent days of theater’s use of multimedia, I remember a show that used video in a way that was definitely hurtful: Whenever a video clip came on, the stage lights would go to black so the audience could watch the video filling the back of the stage. At the end of the clip, when the lights were again turned on, the actors seemed to have shrunk to the size of hamsters.
Then, a couple or three seasons ago, video was extensively used in THE HISTORY BOYS, but the technique was much refined. Stage lights would be dimmed, rather than cut, and the clip was projected above, rather than behind, the actors. When the video was over, the stage lights went up extra-bright, and the actors had the same scale (and importance) they’d had before.
Much of the story of THE HISTORY BOYS that couldn’t be acted out on the stage was wonderfully provided through the videos.
The understanding of how to use technology had greatly changed, and that change made all the difference in the world.
But in both these cases, the action onstage stopped for the videos, so the audience focus could be controlled. In the case of GHOST – and earlier THE WOMAN IN WHITE – the projections went on while the actors moved around the stage, and that threw the focus badly out of whack in both shows.
The problem I had with THE WOMAN IN WHITE was the projections made me seasick.
The problem I had with the multimedia used in GHOST was that it felt relentless.
In the first act on Broadway, at least, much – it seemed like most – of the time the story was undermined by the avalanche of frenetic symbols of New York City – and specifically the stock market – while the actors downstage became after-thoughts, moving about ignored while the audience’s eyes were inevitably drawn to the moving images.
Because that’s where the audience’s eyes are bound to drawn. By their nature, moving images are stronger than the actors can be, larger, more insistent. If you fill the scene/act/show with multimedia, the audience’s identification with and caring for the actors can go out the window.
Which doesn’t bode well for a show based on a three-hanky chick-flick movie. If the audience isn’t allowed enough still moments to identify with the characters and their feelings, the heart of the story can never truly affect the audience, and the payoff from a show like GHOST is forever lost.
What’s needed is an understanding – on the part of producers and creative team – that the multimedia needs to enrich the story, not vice versa.
In the current LEAP OF FAITH, a handheld video camera is employed to send certain moments to several video screens around the St. James, most of which are viewable by those who have less than ideal seats. I get that, but why then give the camera operator such prominence to the entire audience? Either he’s there for all of us, or he isn’t.
In contrast, the handheld camera in Théâtre de Complicité’s MNEMONIC was brilliantly used to enhance the story, sometimes in ways that were heartbreaking.
So let the punishment fit the crime, and the multimedia fit the show.
Tech should be a tool, not the point....