In my early, developing days as a young actor at American Players Theatre, we were led by a charismatic artistic team whose underlying mission — besides bringing compelling Shakespeare to Wisconsin’s countryside – was to return to the very basic fundamentals of theatre itself: the art of storytelling.
We entered into intense study of language, history, psychology and literature. We attempted to form a crystal-clear understanding of text, character, motivation, structure and intent. And we sought inspiration from the words of some of the great theatre practitioners who had blazed an early trail toward the modern, realistic, passionate and fully-engaging theatrical experience.
We learned the truth about Stanislavsky’s “method” approach (no, you don’t think about your cat that died when you need tears). We read accounts of actors from previous centuries: the quixotic Edmund Kean (like reading Shakespeare by lightning), luminous Ellen Terry, who brought most of Shakespeare’s heroines to brilliant life, or the Booth family dynasty: father Junius Brutus Booth, with sons Edwin – intense and innovative – and his infamous brother John Wilkes, whose final stage appearance at Ford’s Theatre stunned a nation still divided by civil strife.
I was particularly taken with one brief but transformative volume written by Robert Edmond Jones, an American theatre designer in the early 20th century. Jones brought a tremendous personal adoration for theatre to his work, along with an integrated vision of design which fit seamlessly with what the play and, most importantly, the actors needed to do onstage. He did it all: scenery, costumes and lights, for an entirely coordinated approach. Jones’ reputation among peers was, simply: genius.
Toward the beginning of his evocative book, The Dramatic Imagination, Jones describes the theatre as it once was, cleverly describing what he contends may have been the world’s first show! It’s the story of Stone Age cavemen, of a close gathering in darkness around the safety of fire, and of a leader who tells his little band of the lion he had killed earlier that day.
The lion’s skin lies close by, near the fire. Suddenly the leader jumps to his feet. “I killed the lion! Idid it! He sprang at me! I struck at him with my spear! He fell down! He lay still!”
He is telling us. We listen. But all at once an idea comes to his dim brain. “I know a better way to tell you. See! It was like this! Let me show you!”
In that instant drama is born.
“Sit around me in a circle – you, and you, and you – right here where I can reach out and touch you all.” With one inclusive gesture, he makes – a theatre!
The leader continues: “You, Ook, over there – you stand up and be the lion. You put on the lion’s skin, and I’ll kill you and we’ll show them how it was.”-quoted from The Dramatic Imagination by Robert Edmond Jones
Copyright 1941 Theatre Arts Books, New York
The two freshly-minted actors depict the hunt: Ook, growling terribly, the leader stalking his prey. As the drama plays out, the audience sees their friend Ook in a different light: he is Ook alright, but he is a lion too. Jones continues:
The drama is finished.
Now Ook takes off his lion’s skin and sits beside us and is himself again. Just like you. Just like me. Good old Ook. No, not quite like you or me. Ook will be, for as long as he lives, the man who can be a lion when he wants. The lion’s spirit gets into him. And we shall always look up to him and admire him and perhaps be secretly a little afraid of him. Ook is an actor. He will always be different from the rest of us, a little apart from us. For he can summon spirits.-quoted from The Dramatic Imagination by Robert Edmond Jones
Copyright 1941 Theatre Arts Books, New York
In his fanciful Stone Age tale, Jones describes the essence of theatre; that of summoning spirits. And there are three essential elements in this act which come together in mutual agreement: the actor, the author and the audience. The actor enters into the bargain to join with an author’s character in spiritual communion, and the audience comes with willing and open imagination, ready to invest belief. The story is not only told, it is experienced. This powerful, triple alliance transports human souls to rare and exotic places, where adventure abounds and empathy breathes.
With Jeffrey Hatcher’s THREE VIEWINGS, we look forward to hosting your return as you take your rightful place in a Next Act seat. Despite the necessary paraphernalia-of-pandemic, we hope to inspire you with unusual stories, well-told, in the simplest and oldest of theatre traditions: an author, an actor and you, the audience.
Tickets for THREE VIEWINGS are now on sale at https://nextact.org/shows/three-viewings/?tickets. This production is offered live at 255 S. Water Street as well as virtually. Performances run until October 17, 2021.