Monday, June 16, 2014

It's All Magic

Youthful director with belief suspended
In my previous life, I was a working theater person. I hold a Master of Fine Arts in directing, have been an artistic director of a small theater, coached singer/actors...specializing in opera, and spent some 20 years as a working children’s playwright. Although I left the active field a few years ago, I have close friends who remain in the business. The point of all this is to admit I am still a theater person. Not an actor, a theater person. I love the business of show much more than I love show business.

I love the stats and the numbers and the technical expertise it takes to get a show on the boards. I was a huge fan of the original ENTERTAINMENT TONIGHT when they used to talk grosses and nets, who was casting, who was taking what where. When it became PEOPLE on tv, I was gone.

It should be no surprise, then, that I loved the Oscars more when the technical awards were presented on the telecast. Movies aren't just about pretty faces on a screen; movies are technology and science and art all rolled into one. Yes, you have to have actors, but a good director can make a bad actor look good, and a good cinematographer can make a lousy director look brilliant. It's all about the collaboration of sets, lights, costumes, sound, and then the actors. Without the consummate joining of artistic forces, you get Norma Jean Baker, not Marilyn Monroe. 

When offered California, I turned it down in favor of live theater. I wanted the real magic, the kind that’s about immediate suspension of belief. It's live, in person,...and on Broadway, 8 times a week. Sure, actors work hard to learn their lines and their movements, but tech people make magic. PETER PAN cannot fly without the flies guy. The entrancing uber-marionettes of  THE LION KING could not dance without the technowizards,  and I won’t even mention the dark magic of SPIDERMAN.

Straight plays need the magic of technical theater just as much to morph from the plush seat into whatever world the playwright creates. Without those magicians, it’s just a bunch of people reading stuff out loud.

Tech people know it’s their job is to be invisible. Nobody really wants to see the strings, the cables, and the trapdoor. The audience wants to be dazzled and it’s up to the tech folks to do that. Originally, only sets, lights, and costumes were recognized Tony categories, but The American Theater Wing and The Broadway League came to their senses and added Sound Design for a Play and Sound Design for a Musical to the list of Tony awards in 2008.

I remember that announcement, and how both Steve and I greeted it with cheers. Long had we felt sound was one of two missing award categories. We were thrilled to see sound designers finally recognized as the artistic contributors that they are. It was a huge milestone in recognizing the growth of technical expertise as art. Sound was more than placing a microphone. It was introducing the noise of the play, those sounds you need to hear in the back of your head to know you are where you are supposed to be….on a train….on a street… a hot flat with a fan whirring in the background. Our world is not silent; the stage should not be either. Honoring those achievements in sound is no less important than honoring achievements in sets, lights, and costumes.

And now, in a seemingly inexplicable move, The American Theater Wing announced they are discontinuing the sound category beginning with the 2014-2015 Tony season.

When I decided to write about this, I understood I would not be writing about the executions in Iraq this past week, or the kidnapping of teenagers in Israel, or even this week’s version of stupidity by the GOP. I know that a sound award is narishkeit in light of world events, and I fully understand that this may be deemed trivial.

Broadway sound board
But it is not. Our nation needs art and people who produce art, especially the ones whose faces are not on the marquees of this world. We need the men and women who work behind the scenes to give us the entertaining experience we’ve paid to have. Recognizing those artists whose work contributes to the gestalt of the show is crucial to our understanding of how that production gets to be on any stage. It doesn’t matter if it’s Broadway or the Elk River Community Theater; designers design wherever there is a production to be mounted. If reaching Broadway is a pinnacle of success in one’s field, then sound cannot and must not be excluded from recognition. Recognition is not to be underrated. Everyone needs it...especially the people who work on behind the curtain, in the dark, out of sight. Everyone wants to feel their work counts. 

American Theater Wing and Broadway League: taking away the award is a terrible slap in the face to all of technical theater. Don’t do it.

Wifely Person’s Tip o’the Day

I mentioned there were two categories we thought were missing from Tony recognition. The second is Production Stage Management for both a play and a musical. Anyone who has ever worked the boards knows this is the single most unsung, under-appreciated, underrated, and absolutely essential position behind the scenes.
They need a couple of Tonys BIG time. 


  1. Why are you smoking? And why are you promoting cigarettes on your blog-site?

    1. The picture was taken in 1975 where I was not only smoking, I was smoking _indoors_, so one can safely conclude that the photo was taken was a very long time ago. Belief, was indeed, suspended.. as it is for most people of a certain age.

      Am I encouraging smoking with this photo? I think not.

      Smoking happened. People did it. I did it. To pretend otherwise is revisionist, not to mention dishonest.

    2. Some of us still New York, where they're $9+ per pack....

    3. Some of us still do, though most are not proud of it...Back then, it was sophisticated. Now it's stupid.