Monday, May 19, 2008

metaDRAMA: Curtain Calls

You're part of a show -- say, Machinal -- and you've invested yourself in the Big Ideas, and you've worked hard every night to help that machine deliver an emotional blow to the audience. The heroine is strapped to a chair, prayers are said, barbers do their work, and then, in the final fade to black, the sound of electricity (scream optional). Silence. Now, how would you follow that up? Bear in mind, this is, unfortunately, the last thing the audience is really going to see, the thing they're going to leave the theater with. Do you really want to have the cast file back on, out of character, singing a hymnal as they bow and clap and cheer?

It's hard for me to accept this casual use of the curtain call, this dismissive "thank you" that releases the audience from the illusion of the play. We've all done our part to transport you for the last two hours . . . why so quick to give it up, with a smile and a tip of the hat? Now, I'm a fan of curtain calls, I am. For too many of the productions I see, that's pretty much all the actor gets at the end of the night. But is it wrong to ask that the curtain call be more than awkward and obligatory? Granted, it'll always be the last thing blocked, always something a little rushed (of course putting up the play takes precedence), but why all the effort if you're going to end on the wrong note? First impressions are important for dates; last impressions are key for plays.

Now, I know many of you would say that I'm nitpicking, that it doesn't ruin a show any more than a typo in your favorite novel, or a patch of static on an otherwise perfect record, or a slightly unfocused shot in an masterpiece film. But theater is made up of living, breathing images -- picture-perfect moments that we leave the theater thinking about -- and you have to be naive to think that the curtain call, which has the misfortune of being the last thing we see, doesn't affect the way an audience reacts to a show. I mean, if an unplanned cellphone can kill the mood (when I went back to Hostage Song, I'd have killed the audience member who ruined the silent ending if I'd been near them), or sudden applause at a celebrity entrance can make it harder for actors to stay in character, why is so little made of the curtain call -- the last thing you'll see in the show? You can disassociate all you want, but remember: if you can recite the pitch for "Equity Fights AIDS" but not any of the play's dialog or if you can picture the gift shop but not the set, then there's a problem with the show. If professionals talk about acting through impulses, then why do we just assume the play ends when everyone gets the bends?

There are directors who get this. David Grindley, when doing Journey's End, understood the emotional journey of the play, and turned the curtain call into a memorial. He actually built extra set for that effect, acknowledging the importance of the world beyond the curtain. (Not that it has to be complex either; for BAM's Endgame, Andrei Belgrader simply froze the actors in a tableaux before releasing them -- and us -- to their bows.) But, especially as we delve into plays that deconstruct theater, there are plenty who don't. Doesn't it cheapen the effect of the players quitting Pippin if everybody just comes out a few seconds later and takes a bow? What's the point of "really" killing someone in, say, The Actor's Nightmare, if you're going to resurrect them for the curtain call? (If I remember the stage directions from when I did that show, George is supposed to stay beheaded through the curtain call -- that's part of the illusion and part of the joke.) Again, these are different types of shows -- nobody's denying South Pacific a curtain call -- but I always feel like the effect of a curtain call goes unnoticed. For instance, when I teared up at Fabrik, a large part of that emotional response was from the respectfully solemn curtain call; had Wakka Wakka put down their puppets and come out smiling, it would've been easy to walk away, which is the natural response when confronted by difficult emotions. But as with so much commercial theater, why invest so much in the theater for such a limited effect? It seems like we'd rather numb ourselves than actually experience anything.

Some of this is hyperbole. I'm not calling for a revolution; nine out of ten curtain calls are fine, and comedies are, for the most part, off the hook (they could always get more laughs out of a well-rehearsed curtain call, as with Urinetown, but laughs are cheap). But then again, perhaps they're just fine because we don't know any better, just as people say that they've just seen the best production of Gypsy ever . . . until they see one that's better. Think back to the shows you've seen; think back to the curtain calls. Could they have done something differently? Could that important, but overlooked, piece of the show (and it is a part of the show) have been better?

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