Much of what we know is thanks to stories; told and re-told, they can provide escape or worldly insight.
Children’s fables taught us the repercussions of breaking and entering (Goldilocks and the Three Bears) and the importance of things like perseverance (The Tortoise and the Hare) and not talking to strangers (Hansel & Gretel). Greek mythology taught us of hubris (with the story of Icarus) and of a dangerous curiosity (with the story of Pandora’s box), while Harry Potter took us to a place far more magical than ours.
On paper, these stories will always be the same. Their characters are unchanging, messages unyielding. Film and visual art are similar in this respect; interpretations can vary from person to person, and these interpretations may change as time goes on, but the actors’ performances and the marks on canvas won’t.
This, said Matt Cahoon, is what differentiates live theater from other modes of storytelling.
“I think one thing that’s great about theater that separates it from other media is that it’s so reliant on the audience,” said Cahoon of theatre KAPOW in a phone interview. “Nothing you do as an audience member will change Christian Bale’s performance in American Hustle. But how you react will affect a performance in professional theater.”
Visual, performance art blend
Theater, Cahoon said, has an immediacy and an intimacy with the audience that you don’t get from the written word, from film or visual art. True, live music promotes a similar experience, but it’s still different, he said, because theater is immersive in both sound and vision.
“We often talk about our shows as a blend of visual and performing arts. Telling a story through movement or design is just as important as telling through words or on the page,” he said.
Image is something that can be easily overlooked; the play, after all, is often told first through words on the page, but it’s of incredible importance, Cahoon said, because before there’s anything else, there’s image.
“The first thing is what people will see — this will hit them before the first sound. Even before the script, the audience is having a visual experience before the show,” Cahoon said.
Theatre KAPOW members talk about storytelling quite a bit. They’re constantly tackling new ways to tell stories through performance art, whether in new venues (one show occurred in Studio 550’s tiny movement space) or in conjunction with other artistic modes of expression (like with their play reading series that accompanies Currier Museum of Art exhibitions). They like to tell stories that people in the area haven’t heard a million times already, stories that maybe “strike a nerve” or relate “what it’s like to be a human being,” Cahoon said.
He’d like to see more local theater companies promoting new or local work. The past few years, the company has produced a 24 Hour Play Festival — a handful of scriptwriters, play directors and actors work to produce a short, 15-minute play in the span of 24 hours. (Twelve hours goes to writing, 12 to rehearsal.) Years back, they performed My Neighbor, the Poet by local writer Donald Tongue. Most of their productions contain fresh ideas or original interpretations.
“I think we owe it to our audiences to tell new stories and share work of new or current playwrights,” Cahoon said.
Writing for the stage
Writing for the stage is different from writing prose in a few different ways.
“Plays happen in the present time,” said local playwright Lowell Williams. “You can’t go back in time easily. You also can’t explain what a character is thinking like you can in prose.”
But one essential element remains the same: conflict.
“There are a million ways to approach conflict. People tend to think of conflict as angry, but of course, it’s not just that. There’s all kinds of conflict,” Williams said.
He’s a regular writer for the New Hampshire 24 Hour Play Festival; many of his pieces have been shown in New Hampshire as well, including Six Nights in the Black Belt about the murder of civil rights activist Jonathan Daniels, which was produced years back by Yellow Taxi Productions and M&M Productions.
Plays, said Williams, also have to be logical — much more logical than real life.
“We expect to see a three-act structure, a beginning, middle and end,” Williams said. When it comes to writing, he finds it most helpful to work backward. “Everything should happen for a reason. If you read it backward, you can tell if it’s falling apart and not logical. … The other strong thing you need is a theme.”
Williams learned much of the craft while earning his Master of Fine Arts degree at Goddard College in Vermont. (One of his classmates was Matthew Quick, whose debut novel was The Silver Linings Playbook.) He demonstrated this use of theme, conflict and purpose during the phone interview when he basically narrated a play he wrote, on the spot, about a boy with Down syndrome trying to make the football team with his brother’s magic sneakers.
“There’s got to be something important at stake. You have to ask yourself, why does he want to make the football team? Why does it matter? It’s got to be a compelling reason, something that he can’t reasonably give up,” Williams said.
And then, what’s theater without a bit of suspense, without risk involved?
“What happens if the kid doesn’t make the football team? He’s got to be pushed, compelled by the stakes, and the higher those are the more compelling it is,” Williams said.
Williams became enamored of the theater world in 1995 when he wrote an episode for Star Trek that was considered but not produced.
“It’s a collaborative art form. … Once you write the novel, it doesn’t do anything else. But in order for a play to happen, the script is only the first part,” Williams said. “After that, you have the lighting designer, the set designer, they all contribute as well. … One production of Hamlet will look completely different, even though the scripts are identical, depending on how you interpret it.”
As seen in the April 3, 2014 issue of The Hippo.