Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Great Outdoors

A post in which Kate Meehan, our Managing Director and frequent performer, waxes on about performing outdoors.

Every now and then, a show will remind me of why I keep coming back to Commedia dell'Arte. This past Friday, La Fenice's performance of For Whom the Dong Tolls was just one of those nights. But I'm already getting ahead of myself.

When I was a little girl, my mother would disappear every night and wouldn't return until very late. One night, when she'd snuck into my room to give me a kiss, I asked her where she disappeared to every night. She promised to show me. The next night we packed a picnic dinner and went to the old Grand Rapids Civic Theatre. We climbed the magnificent stair and, half way up, went through an anonymous, nearly invisible door into a dark, cramped staircase that led to the peanut gallery, which had been sealed off decades before. Cut into the plaster that had sealed off the balcony were two open windows with gigantic spotlights leering out over the audience below. In the darkness of the balcony, the sounds of tiny claws scuttling across the dust and ancient peanut shells were transformed into a miniature army of monsters. But those windows. Oh, those windows. Far below, Cabaret was unfolding. My mother guided the spotlight as people sang and danced, plucking their performances out of the darkness.

It has nothing to do with Commedia, but I share it because it marks my first formative experience with the theatre. At that moment, theatre became something that fused spectacle and danger. That was 28 years ago, and that show, the way it made me feel, is as tangible as this keyboard.

I performed on stages all over, but there was always something missing. Sure, there's always some potential for surprises in live theatre - missed lines or cues, costume malfunctions - but there was some threat that wasn't there that seems to both ignite and unite audience and spectator. I delved into improv in Chicago, finding the risk inherent in improv a little closer to what I felt was missing from traditional performance, but missing the structure and spectacle that comes from tangibles like properties and costumes.

I'd performed in Commedia-inspired version of Tony Kushner's The Illusion (twice, actually), so had been introduced to the style and had done a bunch of armchair research. It wasn't until I moved to Austin and was introduced to a bunch of ex-Renaissance Festival geeks starting up a Commedia troupe that I found the combination of danger and spectacle I'd been looking for. They performed in bars (Club Deville was our first venue). They wielded swords. They crammed more fart jokes into an hour than should be legal without a permit.

That troupe, of course, was Austin Commedia Society, the progenitor of La Fenice. In addition to the improv, there is something really magical about performing on outdoor stages in bars. With the broad expanse of stars and sky, your task as an actor not only includes providing a convincing portrayal of a strange human within a predetermined narrative, but to physically draw the audience away from the expanse at their backs. We were creating invisible windows in peanut galleries.

And then there's the elements. We perform in wind and heat. Heat. Did I say heat? Why are we always performing in summer? We sing and dance, and it feels like we're performing inside a fat kid. Our thin blades flash across the stage, and inside our velvet and brocade costumes, we're making human soup.

On Friday, it was muggy and hot. The sky to the north of the stage flashed with wild lightening, and as the show progressed, the audience's attention was pulled by the ominousness of this crazy, natural light show churning behind the stage. Would the storm hit before the show ends? Will it rain? Was that thunder? We all felt it. With each lightening strike, the audience sat a little more forward in their seats. The actors, off stage, looked to the north and engaged in frantic math as they pretended to be meteorologists. That shared trepidation united the audience and actors in an electric way unrelated to the storm.

And then, slowly at first, fat drops hit the stage. We looked to the audience. They told us to play on.

We frantically took off our wigs and masks and stowed them in dry places, and kept going, slipping a bit on the stage as the rain came down harder and harder. We rolled on the stage, on puddles, while our audience, uncovered, got just as soaked. And they stayed. And we blew through the show like a tempest.

And as we took our bows, soaked to the bone, looking out at our half-drowned audience applauding merrily, I realized that we'd made something that many of those people would remember years down the road - the night that they watched this crazy show in a torrential downpour. It would've been impossible in a traditional stage. It would've been impossible in a show that was tightly scripted.