A Note on “Realism”

Matthew Heiti and Kelsie Carroll in “Closer”. Photo by Isabelle Barbeau.

“Realism” is a purely subjective term in the context of the stage. Everyone has their own definition or threshold.

Director A, with his $100K budget, needs a historical recreation of an 1850’s colonial sitting room. Director B will do it with period furniture and some carefully selected gels and gobos at maybe $25K. Director C will use matte black boxes and that certain piece of music that just seems to “take you there.”

I usually fall somewhere between B and C. Point is, realism is up to the director to define.

In the first 10 minutes (or less) of a play, the audience is (or should be) introduced to the ground rules for the defined “realism” the director has selected. If the first scene is in a hospital waiting room, as it was my last project, Patrick Marber‘s “Closer”, than six chairs arranged in two rows of three back to back does the job, by my standards. Throw in a projected image of an “Emergency” sign and a playing space clearly defined by light spill and the audience will buy it.

It’s that simple. As long as you keep it consistent.

If, in the next scene, you drop a full box set from the fly gallery (which I don’t have at my theatre) to create the photographer’s studio and suspend the bare-bones “only what you need” aesthetic, you’ve just changed the rules and the audience, whether conscious or subconscious, will be pulled out as soon as your plywood monstrosity touches the floor.

The theatre audience is dangerously impressionable because they know what a theatre looks like. It’s a blank black space. And chances are, they haven’t been able to draw much of a picture from your publicity photos and newspaper/TV previews.

So they’re coming in blind with no expectations and no predetermined framework of what is “real” and what is “stagey”. Just bait the hook, directors, and you can make them swim in any direction you wish.

Scene transitions are those unique-to-the-theatre and potentially awkward moments where you (meaning your play) actually stand up and say “Look at me! I’m not real!” Seeing furniture fly on and off a surface at a dizzying speed in dim light with music doesn’t usually happen in real life, provided a clean urine sample can be provided. But it’s one of those constant nagging realities of work on the stage: sometimes, you have to change the location and that means breaking the illusion and showing the audience the two pair you’re holding.

Or does it?

Remember, once you establish the ground rules, the audience is hooked. And they’ll buy anything as long as it fits within those rules. Changing a scene, if done properly, becomes no different that a phone ringing from a speaker (which should be avoided, by the way): it’s part of a structured illusion. It’s part of the rules. It’s real in the context of the “real” you’ve created.

So lay the rules down.

I try to begin the show with as bare a stage as possible. If the play takes place in a single location, keep it dark in pre-show or use your red or black tab. The less information the audience has before the show starts, the less time they have to question your presentation when the curtain rises.

You’ll be amazed by what you can get away with.


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