Theatre in Wales

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Theatre Craft (part 2)

Theatre Director Book

John Caird , Faber & Faber , November 28, 2011
Theatre Director Book by John Caird “Theatre Craft” may be addressed to the young professional but there is much of interest to theatre’s audience and enthusiasts. It is rich in the physical texture of theatre. On acoustics it is the nature of wood as a material that it “has the capacity to absorb and reflect sound at the same time as reverberating with it and is deeply sympathetic to the harmonic complexity of the human voice.” Contact lenses apparently dry out under the heat of stage lighting. Other cast members may be reduced to not much more than a blur to a myopic actor. In mega-musicals a quasi-police force monitors the movements of the singers. Step outside your numbered grid position and your name goes on a blacklist.

There is new vocabulary for the outsider to encounter- the iron, scrim, spike, park and bark, gobos, nubbing and stridulent. The pitfalls of performance are limitless. Facial hair tickles the mouth and nose, falls off or gets stuck to another person’s face. The strain suffered by performers who seek emotion that eludes them is described in near clinical terms. “The strain usually starts in the voice but soon transmits to other parts of the actor’s frame, resulting in a performance that rasps the vocal cords, bulges the neck and twists the body into dehumanising contortions.”

Theatre is collaboration. Caird writes with warmth of his fellow craftsmen. Dramatists are people “whose companionship in the dressing room has provided me with some of my happiest insights.” Fight directors are “usually the gentlest people in the world but their business is violence. They dote on it.” On actors “an actor’s mind comprises his humanity. If the theatre is to reflect an audience’s true nature back to itself, only a whole actor can create a whole human image.”

But it is not a world that is all roses. “All theatres have their malcontents and mischief-makers. Do not give them credence by encouraging them or conspiring with them.” Bullies are broken down into four categories. The role of the director is equivocal. The thirty-seven descriptive terms applied to the director include “irritant” “irrelevance” and “bastard”. Like any walk of life “the theatre world is full of unhappy directors or directors who are only happy from time to time.” It is not so uncommon. Four-fifths percent of partners in City law firms hate their lives. That unhappy chasm between the original motivation, the actual work and the cash is not just a feature of a life in the arts.

The prose of “Theatre Craft” is practical and un-showy. But in the distinct authorial voice that pervades, it is not unlike the art of the director itself. “Rehearsals are largely about finding order and meaning in an imagined world” even if you have cast members “who prefer the theorising over a scene rather than getting on and doing it.”
Theatres in the USA deliver playbills that are “badly designed, sparsely worded and deadly dull.” He exudes sympathy for the actor who gets to play Fortinbras. The audience has “no stake whatever in his kingship” or “patience left for any further dramatic gestures from anyone.” Quite true. Particularly apposite for a performance culture more at ease with aesthetic exploration than modernity, Caird makes the observation “the more you work in the theatre the more careful you have to be to stay in touch with life as it really is.”

The entry on surtitles is largely restricted to opera. In a bilingual performance culture there is a lot more to be said. A second edition could usefully expand and take in issues of perception and cognitive speed. But the range of topics is impressive. His must be the first text to anatomise exactly who sits in the balcony and why they deserve the director’s attention. Critics are subject to a similar generous analysis. He pins down exactly the three-way nexus of commentator, viewer and reader. “Believe in your own choices” and anyway “b***er the critics… the play’s the thing.”

Caird’s description of the dress rehearsal is a classic, just too good to be quoted selectively. Like all media, publishing thrives on surfeit. There are too many books on everything. That includes theatre, but “Theatre Craft” is a good one.

Reviewed by: Adam Somerset

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