In Defense of Minimalism: My Theory of Performance and Production.
When it comes to producing a show, I am a minimalist. I like a clean, open, very unadorned stage. However, recently a few people have questioned and even bucked my minimalist style of producing shows and I though t I'd offer some insight as to why I approach performing and production the way I do.
My first encounter with professional level theater was as a Sophomore in High School. I was in the chorus of Anything Goes. It was a show produced by a local community theater company known for their professional level productions. The show is set on a cruise ship and the set was MASSIVE. It took nearly six weeks to build the two-story monstrosity. I thought it was so cool. Steps, and balconies, door and windows. What a joy! By what a pain. It nearly fell over in one performance, and it took two days to destroy the dang thing after the show closed.
That was the status quo in my theater world for the next several years and I discovered that the sets we built were a part of the audience draw. Many came to see how we could out do the last behemoth. It is what I thought was the norm.
Then some things happened that changed my paradigm. I saw a production of Cotton Patch Gospel at the Ohio Playhouse in Cleveland. It starred Wayne Turney and used a compliment of 4 bluegrass musicians. No set – just the theater drapes hung on the stage. Only two props – a mission style table and a chair that became a boat, a pulpit, a hangman's platform… And this production was done in the original style – as a one man show, so Turney played all the characters. One man, a table, and a chair and nothing more. It was one of the most captivating magical theater moments I have ever seen. Turney filled the stage with characters and persona, and personality, not props. The title of the show aside, that was a religious experience for me.
I noticed the same minimalism from stand-up comics who could hold an audience spellbound with but a microphone and their persona. I saw dance companies who filled the stage with color and majesty in the costuming, and lit up an otherwise barren stage.
I began looking around and noticed a similar phenomenon on Broadway – hit shows using little or no scenery. Shows like Pippin, The Fantasticks, A Chorus Line relied on the characters and the stories they had to tell rather than the sets and scenery they told them on. I went on to do several shows myself that used representational props and scenery. The Wonderful Ice Cream Suit had a set that was only a flat wooden framework of a building. The Music Man that only used a gazebo, the production of The King & I that only used leveled platforms. And then there was the tour of Closer Than Ever. No set, only 3 wooden stools and a Grand Piano. That show set the new standard for me…
Early on I set out to be as minimalistic and representational onstage as possible because I began to realize that monstrous sets and scenery for most productions were just hiding and masking the lack of talent on stage. The smaller the talent pool the bigger the set and scenery must be. Don't believe me? Go see a musical at your local community theater. They will have built these massive sets, and invested a lot of man power into creating scenery, but the lead actress can't seem to quite sing on pitch. Another big offender is Las Vegas. Your can put any talentless jackhole on stage in Vegas and it'll still be entertaining because of the spectacle of scenery.
You see, it boils down to this for me; as a performer – actor, singer, dancer, magician, comedian, whatever – you should be able to fill a stage with your persona, and personality, with your energy and enthusiasm, and most importantly your talent. You are the scenery! If the audience starts looking around at the scenery rather than looking at you and paying attention to you, then you have a bigger problem than what is or isn't on the stage.
When I do shows I want a clean, uncluttered stage. I may use a great drop or backdrop, and whenever possible fabulous lighting (but even that must enhance and not detract), but for the most part, my desire is almost always to fill the stage with larger than life characters whose personalities are the scenery. I may fail at times, but at least it is I who fail, not the moving parts of the set – yes, it's true that sometimes those monster sets come crashing down. I've been there, done that, got the t-shirt!
So, next time you are in a show that I create and you lament the absence of an elaborate set, know that it is not there because you do not need it. If you did, you wouldn't be cast in the show!
Next: Costumes – the outward expression of the larger than life character!