In Anna Rohl’s recent review of Man of La Mancha (Full disclosure: I was the sound designer for this show, although I was not part of the run crew), Rohl brought up some legitimate, serious criticisms of the production. I agree with Rohl’s charge that the show’s violent rape scene and ongoing depictions of violence against women seemed incongruous with the comedic elements of the rest of the play. However, I’d like to raise a new question: who is at fault for producing this interpretation?
A New Perspective: this interpretation of the show was mostly the audience’s fault, not the actors’, and Covenant audiences desperately need to get their act together (pun slightly intended) for respectful viewing of serious dramatic material.
Theatre is an unusual artistic medium. It is a performance art, like film. Yet unlike film, it requires a high level of interaction with the audience in order to be effective. Funny, tragic, and thought-provoking bits of theatre are all performed live, by real people, standing no more than 40 feet away from you.
An Unrhetorical Question: How do you know what a theatrical production means? I’d like you to reconsider your first response, which I suspect was “by sitting and watching how it’s performed.” This notion stems from modern consumption of recorded dramatic media like film and T.V., where there’s no chance of changing what has been imprinted, and where familiar tropes or canned laugh tracks remove ambiguity about what is funny and what is not. But theatre is different. Historically, the medium of theatre has been a participatory art, and substantial elements of this participation remain in modern theatrical performance.
Central Claim: Theatre is just as much about the audience’s response as it is about the actors’ performance. By attending a theatre production, you change the meaning of the show by when you chose to laugh, when you chose to be silent, and when you chose to whisper loudly to your friend. Not only do you govern your own experience while doing this, you subtly impact the way that your fellow audience-members interpret the show.
The Point (yes, we’ve finally got there): Man of La Mancha struck Anna Rohl (and me, and quite a lot of other people) as disturbing and incongruous because Covenant audiences, on a painful quantity of occasions, respond to theatre in disturbing, incongruous ways. In my role as sound designer, I got to attend several dress rehearsals, and I can confidently report that the show I saw then was entirely different from the show that audiences saw later. By the end of the last dress rehearsal, I was actually crying, as were a few other members of the production team. Even though we’d seen it and read it a thousand times, the finished production appeared to us as a deeply moving piece. It was an inspiring, unflinching musical essay on the darkness of the world and the hope of all people with “impossible dreams.”
This, of course, did not stick: when I attended a live-audience performance, I saw a completely different play. The audience heartily giggled at the womanizing, sexist behavior of the principal villains, and their evil was converted into a light bit of “boys will be boys” comedy. The audience inexplicably laughed at lines that had blindingly obvious foreboding subtexts, and most people seemed shocked and confused when the violence that had been foreshadowed for the past forty-five minutes actually took place.
At the theatre department, there’s “a very often-heard refrain” almost as common as the one which troubles the Padre in La Mancha. In any given show, when the audience laughs at a moment that is supposed to be dramatic, someone backstage always turns to someone else with a knowing look and a bit of a sad note in their voice, and delivers the well-worn phrase, “Well, everything’s a comedy at Covenant.” You see, this wasn’t just a problem with La Mancha. Through the years, Covenant Theatre has offered a variety of serious plays, and has often discovered that student audiences are disoriented by just how serious they are.
Consider this invitation: When you go see live theatre, at Covenant or elsewhere, pay careful attention to what’s happening onstage. Consider what the subtext of the scene might be, and whether it’s actually comedic or telling you something else entirely. Once you start viewing theatre in this participatory manner, in which you are not so much served an entertainment as invited into one, you may discover that you’re picking up on far more meaning than you were before. Was Man of La Mancha a perfect performance? Nope. But I wonder what it could have been, had audiences stopped for a moment to think.