Director's Diary: 3 Ways Theatre is More Liberating Than Film
GMT’s current production, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, sees regular cast member and independent filmmaker Alasdair MacRae take the theatrical reigns for the first time. In a new series of rehearsal diaries, Alasdair saddles up to take us behind-the-scenes, and details his inaugural shot at directing for the stage.
As a teenager I decided that I wanted to be a film director, and I’ve been making short films ever since. You may have already seen some of the sketch trailers I directed for GMT’s productions of Into The Woods and How To Succeed in Business Without Even Trying. At first I thought theatre was film’s more serious, less flashy cousin - but after months of preparation, a busy audition weekend, and our first three rehearsals for Whorehouse, I’m actually coming to the conclusion that theatre is offering me something that film-making can’t.
War Horse - one version is more realistic, but which is more exciting to watch?
It’s all about the actors
For the vast majority of the viewing public, actors are the main thing they care about in a movie. However, despite their importance, it’s still the director who ultimately shapes or totally manipulates an actor’s performance through the power of editing. Don’t like the way Megan Fox delivered that dialogue? That’s fine, you can just cut out the boring bits, and add more footage of an actor who isn’t made of balsa wood.
When you’re in the theatre, you’re going to have a few hundred people sitting down to watch your show. All that energy you can fake in film? That needs to exist every moment the actors are on stage. In that sense, a director has to trust the actors a whole lot more, and respect that this is their medium.
However, the great thing is that as long as you have some talented actors performing your work, you can lose nearly everything else - including the theatre itself. I saw Antony and Cleopatra at The Globe last year - no curtain, no lighting, no microphones, minimal set, and yet it was compelling to watch.
Although it would have been way more compelling if I’d had a damn seat
For a great example, watch this concert version of Sweeney Todd - they manage to perform the story on just a few walkways around an orchestra. Try doing that on camera and you’d get laughed off set.
Transitions are everything
From my background in film, I already appreciated how important it is to consider how you’ll get from one scene to another. But again, with a simple cut, the audience can be whisked from Captain America’s dinner party straight to Iron Man puking up the next morning (I’m pretty sure that’s the basis for the upcoming Civil War flick).
The theatre is less forgiving. You’ve essentially just got a big rectangle with people on it - you need to get creative when you’re communicating a change of time or place to the audience. I find a simple blackout or curtains to allow for a set change very frustrating to sit through as an audience member, and its a technique that I feel kills the pacing of a story. But therein lies the fun - you have lighting cues, sound clips, even choreographed set changes and more to act as transitional tools. Or, like the production of Sister Act I saw a few years ago, you could build the entire stage on turntables and conveyor belts, and have the various locations of the story whizz around before the audience’s eyes. That’s how storytelling challenges can actually become thrilling parts of the theatre experience!
No set? Try imagination!
One of the challenges of low-budget film-making is the struggle to make things look realistic while having very little resources. If you try to make a Sci-Fi epic on only £100, your characters aren’t likely to look like they’re really in space. Unless you’re mates with George Lucas, I suppose, and could blag some special effects work for free, but then he’d probably insist that you add some racist cartoon aliens.
In Whorehouse, I’m staging a feature-length show with several locations, including a press conference, street scenes, and obviously, a brothel. After the budget was drawn up, there’s maybe only a few hundred pounds left in the ‘set/props/costumes’ fund. All those dreams of a big fancy set with multiple levels, and maybe some TV monitors, and ooh, maybe we could actually hang 20 fans in every room?!... they vanish when the excel spreadsheet hits the fan.
But that’s the beauty of black-box theatre; If you have two great actors sitting across from each other pretending it’s the year 3000 on the bridge of the U.S.S. Patti Lupone, then despite the fact that the audience can SEE they’re just sitting on a stage, they go with it. This is a phenomenon that I don’t think happens in film the same way, where if the environment doesn’t look convincing, the audience will just not believe it.
In theatre, it’s like we make a pact with the audience - you picture the space, and we’ll tell the story in it. It’s very liberating, and it means that with only a few (affordable!) pieces of furniture and props, and some nifty lighting, we can suggest worlds that will build themselves in the audience’s imagination - and are therefore more impressive than anything we’d be able to come up with on stage.
Pictured above: Anything
So if you’re also a low-budget film-maker, struggling to realise your vision on screen, why not see if your idea will work as a piece of theatre? It might cost a lot less, be a lot more exciting, and best of all... everyone will think you are so much more credible, darling.