by KATE FARRINGTON
And there is no such thing as an empty theatre—even when there isn’t a soul in sight.
Well, perhaps more accurately, there is no such thing as a theatre that isn’t “inhabited.” Whether in performance or not, every theatre is constantly cluttered with small, familiar reminders of productions past, from bequeathed coffee mugs and ragged show cards to cheerful graffiti in tucked-away corners. A theatre is never truly vacant, only waiting (impatiently!) for a next round of occupants. The past is never left behind—and the future beckons invitingly.
The crammed, cluttered theatre itself is a fitting symbol for Terrence McNally’s And Away We Go, a whirling, imaginative journey through the joys, missteps, anxieties, and triumphs that have faced theatre companies across the ages, from less-than-ideal acting weather in ancient Greece, to a cut-short rehearsal at The Globe, to a bemused closing night in 1950s Florida. Puritans may close the theatre, money may be scarce, the muffins may come late, but these intrepid souls face every challenge head on—as a freely-chosen, fierce, and motley family.
The idea of artistic community lies at the heart of And Away We Go. In the world of the stage no single person, voice, or vision rules supreme; instead, the experience is a cacophony of passionate voices, each exulting in the messy work of collaborative creation and thriving on the potent back-and-forth between playwrights, actors, and audiences.
In the spirit of And Away We Go, we look at how that sense of company and community, of relationships—between actors and playwrights, artists and audiences, and art and society—have morphed and changed as the world wags on.
The Chorus and Audience
The ancient Athenians were a very civic-minded people. From political office to religious observation to military service, an astonishingly large amount of public life was, at some point in a citizen’s life, compulsory. It was both a duty and an honor to serve the city and its gods in whatever way one could.
And the theatre of Athens was no exception. The entire community came together to prepare, fund, and perform its stories. Every year, in anticipation of Athens’ major theatre festival (honoring Dionysius, the god of wine, theatre, and most other fun things) young men from across the city were drafted into the chorus—a sort of jury duty for the stage.
These youths were housed, fed, and trained, learning movement and choreography, music and poetry, until every gesture, every line, was exactly what the playwright desired. They would then step out before their neighbors and into a staged world of gods, heroes, and high tragedy. For most of these men, this would be their one and only performance experience; for a select few, it was the beginning of a career.
Between the drama festival and the various chorus-only competitions that took place in the course of the year, most of the men in any play’s audience had likely been onstage at some point in their lives, creating a uniquely intimate understanding between playwrights and the general public. They wrote stories for an audience who knew in their bones what it was to inhabit them—who knew the wealth of shared myths and legends that bound the city together from the inside out.
The voice of the chorus, as written by the likes of Sophocles, Aeschylus, or Euripides, could truly be said to be the communal and everlasting voice of the people.
Playwrights and actors have often enjoyed (or occasionally endured) incredibly intertwined professional lives, practically living in one another’s pockets. The traveling commedia troupes of the early Renaissance, the joint-stock theatres of Shakespeare’s London, the star performers of the Restoration—the resident writers of such companies knew the exact talents and limitations of the men and women who performed their plays.
Shakespeare’s close-knit company worked together for the better part of two decades. We can see this intimate relationship between writer and company in the confident inclusion of the Welsh-speaking Lady Mortimer in Henry IV Part One—he could not have penned the character if he didn’t have someone in the company able to speak the language. We probably see it in the plays written in the late 1590s, in which there are always two witty young women (Hermia and Helena, Olivia and Viola, Rosalind and Celia). Our author must have had two particularly gifted boys in the company. And we see it in an accident blessedly preserved by a compositor: Shakespeare’s mind wanders for a moment, and his written stage direction reads “Enter Sinklo” in reference to the actor rather than the character—a notoriously thin man who Shakespeare often wrote being mocked for his size by other characters.
It is fascinating to think how drastically different theatre might have been with a slight shift in “the talent” on hand. We will never know what Richard Burbage sounded like as Hamlet, but how might Hamlet, or Othello, Julius Caesar, or Lear have sounded had Burbage and Shakespeare not lived their theatrical lives together? If Molière’s actor Rene du Parc had been thin instead of fat, how would all those blustering comic servants have changed? If Anton Chekov had not known and loved Olga Knipper, would Masha in Three Sisters still be as vibrant? Such collaborations fundamentally shaped the great works we have inherited.
The Stars…and the Bars
From the late 17th century onward, the lives of actors became the stuff of tabloid stories.
Glamorous (and infamous) stars had their portraits sold in shops and the secrets of their lives splashed across the gossip pages: pert Nell Gwyn, whose wit won the heart of an English king; Colley Cibber, whose colorful private life eclipsed his onstage ventures; Beaumarchais of Figaro fame, who thumbed his nose at the French aristocracy. Across Europe, the theatres that housed these stars touted them in an ostentatious and ever-changing menu of melodramatic love stories and light comedies. Playwrights both great and mediocre knew how to mine these famous players, happily handing them star turns to suit their talents and the taste of the public.
But even in the midst of such seemingly straightforward delights, Enlightenment playwrights faced considerable challenges. As the 18th century wore on and political upheaval began to foment across the Western world, the ruling classes saw how powerful these players, given the right words to speak, might be. Censorship ran rampant. In a time when the wave of a majestic hand could sweep a play off the stage or a playwright into prison, writers willing to speak their minds risked much. And the very fame of their performers increased the power of the theatrical pulpit to a potentially dangerous point.
This era would soon see what Durant, And Away We Go’s novice French playwright, calls the “gathering storm clouds of revolution,” burst—and in a way that had not been true at any point in history, the community of theatre artists began to find its own voice in the wider world.
From the moment Nora closed the door in A Doll’s House to the first glimpse an audience had of a vagabond beneath a lone tree in Waiting for Godot—three generations of playwrights struggled to confront and portray the realities of human existence.
In doing so, they were in conversation and conflict with the past, and in conversation with each other in a totally distinctive way. Ibsen and Chekhov’s Realism defied the “artificial” artistry of the Enlightenment and Romantic period, while Shaw consciously pivoted from Ibsen’s fiery passion into mischievous laughter. Then, when half a century of brutal war left the world reeling in its wake and struggling to understand a universe both violent and anarchic, Absurdists like Beckett offered a chaotic “reality” that blatantly subverted the superficial order previous playwrights had championed.
In rapid succession, ideas were tried, shared, and overturned, to be replaced by new approaches and new insights. This was theatre that hoped to lead its viewers to shockingly new ideas. It was a uniquely provocative relationship between artist…and artist. The theatre must and would change—and the artistic conversation that passed between these visionary artists altered the course of the 20th century.
Our collaboration with Terrence McNally has been a thrilling adventure for our company. After 30 years, The Pearl remains the proud home of a Resident Acting Company, built on the belief that the deeper the collaboration between artists can be, the more rewarding the art. To celebrate that spirit of collaboration with this world premiere play has been a truly joyous experience.
The journey of theatre is one we undertake together, as friends and colleagues, as fellow artists, and as family. It is a relay race across history, over wildly different terrains and with unlikely runners—actors and playwright, naturally, but also audiences, patrons, and all those who love theatre from the edges of the stage—and in so doing, ensure its survival as surely as if they trod the boards themselves.
We are only the latest in the long line of artists carrying the torch, and the time will come when our leg of that race will end. But if we’ve done our work well, the clutter and clamor of all we leave behind will enrich the inheritance of those who come after—we’ll linger as friendly spirits in the work of those who follow.
There is no such thing as an empty theatre—even when there isn’t a soul in sight.
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