A New Model, part II: s m a l l

When I was a kid, my older brothers used to listen to the great standup routines of Steve Martin on the record player. One of the many bits that stands out in my mind (I mean, there are so many great bits on those albums): “One day,” Martin says, “I decided to get small.” In retrospect, having not heard the album in many years, it’s obviously a drug-related routine where Martin goes into the strange world of being small. So, maybe to get theaters to think smaller, I should send out samples of acid tabs, or packets of peyote. But seriously…

Big, Bigger, Biggest. Today, in places outside of the major cities of this country — NY, LA, Chicago (aka Nylachi) — small theater is often synonymous with bad theater. Anyone who has any self-respect as an artist accepts that to create so-called “high production value” theater, one must find work with theaters that have a respectable degree of funding (read grants, corporate sponsors, and wealthy local philanthropists that like to schmooze with “real” artists), and an ability to accommodate even the most inane design or directorial instincts. Right? Lately I’ve been receiving much more email from readers than I have previously, and one such email (from a grad student studying technical production) had a line that caught my eye: “I am still trying to figure out for myself what I believe “low tech” is…but I believe that whatever this low tech is, it is sophisticated and elegant, not cheap and trashy.”

I do understand the point being made here (especially from a technician’s point of view), but I wonder still why the idea of low tech seems to conjure images of par cans made out of coffee cans and cardboard scenery slapped together with duct tape for so many people. For me (though I have yet to read Carlisle and Drapeau’s Hi Concept – Lo Tech) it means scaling way back, designing simpler spaces, and reducing the constant regeneration that leads to high amounts of waste. It doesn’t mean jerry rigging an old space with tie-line and 80’s era Leko’s — and it certainly isn’t the sort of thing we came up with in the backyards of my youth using warped plywood from our father’s garages, paint techniques that seemed to rely on dripping edges, and yes, cardboard scenery (though cardboard does have its place!).

Low tech simply means minimal tech. It does not mean poor tech.

The founding principles here are straightfoward: keep it simple, and change it minimally between productions. Having spent a couple of seasons working for an outdoor classical theater that truly works “in rep,” I am acutely aware of the fact that rotating repertory theater does not always hold to this principle. Having a bare stage for most theater artists is, well, unbearable. And I can understand that — which is why I’m not advocating that. What I am advocating is designing a space that can be easily (or relatively so) adapted between shows, and which enables differing productions to share at least some elements of the playing space. The most effective aspect of the classical rep theater I worked for (okay, it’s no secret: American Players Theatre, where they do great work that would qualify with most theater snobs as having “high production values”) is the rep light plot, which remains the same throughout the six month season, utilizing a handful of show specific specials and color changes for each show. Naturally, the ideal sustainable theater would require far less lighting equipment and power than is used at APT, but the notion of a standard plot that does not go up and come immediately down whole hog between each show as is the convention in today’s theater would certainly lend itself to simpler production methods, requiring less energy (of both the human generated kind as well as whatever means are employed to generate electricity).

There is more to this smallness than just an attempt to achieve sustainability. It is also about allowing the work to flow mostly unencumbered by considerations of spectacle. Naturally, as a veteran theater tech, I am as aware as any that tech can provide visual and auditory stimulus that sometimes is, in and of itself, worth the price of admission. But, I say, leave that type of production to those who can afford to go down that path, and have the ability to pull it off well (that is, instead of the majority of theaters striving for this, allow it to be the minority that it is destined to be while the rest of us serve our communities by telling stories that matter and are accessible). The self-indulgence in theater production can be overwhelming.

And when I say, “those who can afford to go down that path,” I especially mean those who can afford to do so in an eco-responsible manner. Of course.


3 Responses to “A New Model, part II: s m a l l”

  1. April 18, 2008 at 7:29 am

    The suspicion that less means low quality is contradicted by Zen aesthetics, which rests on the following principles:

    * Kanso (Simplicity): beauty and visual elegance are achieved by elimination and omission
    * Shizen (Naturalness): prohibits the use of elaborate designs and over refinement
    * Shibumi (Elegance): elegant simplicity and articulate brevity
    * Wabosabi: Wabi means “Poverty” lacking material wealth but nevertheless feeling free from depending on wordly things; Sabi means “loneliness” or “solitude” — balanced, organinc, free from clutter and chaos, and somehow quite beautiful in its presentation, never appearing ostentatious or decorated

    It seems to me that adopting these values would both support an eco-friendly approach and provide a beautiful aesthetic experience. Americans must finally get over equating “more stuff” with “more better.”

  2. 2 Tiffany
    April 20, 2008 at 8:00 pm

    I think my old grad school should really read this blog. We had little or no stock to pull from — blamed on a lack of storage and the inability to find more — and most of the shows were built from fresh materials and each time we would fill enormous dumpsters with the remains of these shows. I always felt it was a terrible waste and picturing it now festering away in landfills makes me feel even worse.

  3. April 21, 2008 at 5:41 pm

    Tiffany —

    I’m glad to see that someone from my neck of the woods is reading this blog! Thanks! Have you seen the post on Grindzilla? It may take away some of the guilt for those theater artists who can’t help but throw stuff away.

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