Written by Scott keister
What does it take to put on a successful theater show? This simple question is posed to OC theater producers and attendees every weekend, with varying results. And, as it turns out, it has little to do with money. There are a lot of choices for community and professional theater, everywhere from Fullerton to Laguna and spots in between. You can see Broadway touring companies at Segerstrom for big bucks in a not-so-friendly space with weak sound and bad sight lines, or you can see some what recent Broadway shows at local theaters as soon as they become available, produced at drastically smaller budgets, usually at more than one theater per season (Les Miserables is playing at no less than two spaces next year). Still, what it comes down to is not the size of the check behind the show. It’s the limits of the imagination, within those who produced it.
For my money, the real genius that is more often than not over looked in local theater is the director and the designers. Many theaters take these positions for granted, assigning directing jobs to seemingly anyone willing to show up at all the rehearsals with a notepad. Set and lighting designers often just throw up some old flats with a new paint job, turn on the lights then go out and find some chairs. But I’ve seen shows in a black box consisting of one actor with a table and a chair that absolutely floored me. I’ve also seen huge budget Broadway shows that put me to sleep and insulted my intelligence. Samuel Beckett made a career writing plays that required next to no props or sets at all. What they do require is a director with a vision and designers who can clue into that vision. That’s not so easy. In fact, there are relatively few that I know of who consistently put up outstanding shows, regardless of the budget or space. There are plenty of really talented actors around, you see them everywhere, and often in lackluster shows, sadly.
Money is no replacement for imagination and actual skill. Directing is an artistic job, not a managerial one. Even a routine as simple as blocking can ruin a show when executed with no vision. All of these small spaces putting on these large Broadway shows (Les Miserable, for instance, is required to recreate the French Revolution) need plenty of imagination to get behind the spectacle and the inherent drama within the stories that makes them great. Or, in some cases, that expose them for having not much story at all, minus the spectacle. In any case, a good director, a set designer who can make the most of a small space, plus some inventive lighting and sound design, can make all the difference. Great actors can carry a production, sure, but without the benefit of a well-assembled show, they are going to be talking to the wind. Why does Shakespeare turn out so badly so often? Don’t blame the scribe. Blame the guys running the rehearsals who didn’t understand how to put the show up to begin with.
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