Theatre & the Dramatics of Emotion: Past the Fourth Wall

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Semper Opera House, Dresden: Klaus Frahm

“The theatre is so endlessly fascinating because it’s so accidental. It’s so much like life,” said Arthur Miller. And just like in life, the emotions felt within the theatre are very real indeed. Theatre section writer, Jolie Tran, was inspired through her work on both sides of ‘the fourth wall’ and takes this opportunity to share her thoughts with readers of The Saint. By drawing on her experiences watching plays, acting, and working on pro- duction teams, she talks us through an evening at the theatre.

Fifteen minutes before the door opens. The actors: The last round of re- hearsal was a success, and yet, that feeling of having butterflies in their stomachs is only intensifying as the night proceeds. They put on their costumes and makeup while chewing the last bites of their sandwiches. “Ten minutes”, the usher says. The directors encourage the cast with some pep talks. Yet, the directors are the ones who need to be comforted more. Long before the cast was chosen, they spent weeks studying the script, filling out proposal forms for Mermaids. The idea of this play came from a casual conversation. Who knew that this idea was bizarre enough to aspire the directors to bring it to life? The play is rather odd; its plot is convoluted. Will the cast’s performance be simple enough for the audience to understand, yet complex enough to stay true to the structure that the script demands? They are about to find out.

The audience: A trio is smiling triumphantly as they collected the last tickets. The waiting room is already packed with groups of people. Some are chatting away, some are sipping on their hot drinks. By the door, one can see a few people with flowers, excited to see their friends on stage, to get to know them in a different light. What an intriguing night. Words got out that this is gonna be a different type of play. The directors are some of the most dedicated. The group of characters is diverse – they come from many walks of life. One can already witness the chemistry of the cast by looking at the posters. The trailer, which was produced a couple of days ago, was odd enough to amuse the minds of the curious, yet human enough to invite them to come. What a scene!

The doors open.

The actors: Backstage, one is reading through her script for the final time. One is glancing through the curtains, wondering if they got a full house for their opening night. Some actors are looking at each other, murmuring, “Break a leg.” The experienced are calm, they have been in this position multiple times. The first timers are a bit more anxious. Some look at the floor, some eye around to reassure that their props are at the right place. After all, they have worked on this play for months. The first time they read the script, they pondered how on earth would they interpret this play, let alone perform it. Now that a few months have gone by, they know the play by heart. They approached the script sincerely with a learning attitude, and then transformed it with their own uniquely personal interpretation. As actors, they have grown. As a group, they have become a team. They are ready to portray their efforts from the last few months on stage, but deep down inside, they understand that the following days are going to feel empty at their usual rehearsal time.

The audience: Finally, they can walk inside. The stage’s lighting radiates just enough heat to welcome the audience to its home. They quickly find seats. Some read through the brochures to make the most out of what they are about to see. Some look at the set on stage. What is it? Is it supposed to be a park, a town hall? Others simply sit and wait. They wait for the seats to be occupied, for the stage to darken, for the characters to come out and fulfill their fantasy.

The music begins. Whispers fade.

All eyes on the stage.

The actors: It’s their cue to come out. Shouting. They shout from the top of their lungs, they shout like they will never get to shout again. Shouting gives way to silence. Silence gives way to monologues. At first, some actors were a little distracted – they could not refrain from looking through the audience. Gradually, the emotions set in, they return more truthfully to their characters, ones that they have discovered as they built them from scratch.

The audience: This is rather a startling and violent start. The characters are in symbolic costumes. Why is that man wearing red? Why is that girl barefoot? Why are they moaning? Instantaneously, the audience has established a blurry impression for each of the characters. It seems like the man in blue has some dark secrets to him. It seems like the girl in black is an antag- onist. What about that girl in yellow? Who is she? All these predictions are still up in the air. It’s been only a few minutes.

The actors: They find themselves getting more passionate as the play proceeds. They have received a few laughs from the audience here and there. Some of them were expected; some were actually what the actors would consider to be inappropriate. Granted, those laughs have given them more energy. One of them forgot a line; it’s all taken care of. Their fellow actors have got their back. The act continues. The climax is reached. The lighting changes. The music kicks in.

The audience: Are they supposed to laugh at this? It seems like a humorous scene, but they are ambivalent. They now have got the basic idea to the play. There are still a lot of questions at stake. They wonder if the other attendees in the crowd have got the same impressions. Sometimes, what seems to be a simplistic scene can offer such contra- dictory interpretations.

Intermission.

The actors: Half way through! The first half went differently than what they had imagined. They have performed it numerous times. And yet, somehow, with the energy of the crowd, the performance felt more lively and complete. They hope that the audience felt it also. Now it’s time to prepare for the second half. This is going to be an entertaining scene – one that the cast has had much fun practicing. Hopefully this time they can resist the temptation of laughing. “Keep it together,” they whisper.

The audience: They probably walked in not being prepared enough for what they have just seen. There’s ambiguity to be solved. Some discuss. Some ponder by themselves.

The second half.

The actors: The stage is ready. The colors are vibrant. This time, waiting behind the curtains, the actors are not as anxious anymore. This scene is what they have been looking forward to. It’s the last act that they are worried about.

The audience: Immediately after a few seconds of the third act, the audience has been mesmerized by what’s going on onstage. A few laughs for the creativity, a few for the sense of humour, a few for the irony. Life has come to show, however, that irony is usually followed by a mind-triggering tail. What is about to unfold? What can be even more enthralling than this? What are they about to learn?

The final act.

The actors: They are about to perform what they have not experienced, and yet they feel emotionally related to somehow. They think about the times they have failed, the roads they have not taken, the feelings that they could not describe with words. Suddenly, they realise how much they have been through. They have not recalled all the critical times in life at once until now. Their hearts ache. They shiver. They feel emotions. Emotions that words cannot speak, emotions that can only be shown with tears. They feel tears dripping from the corner of their eyelids. The theatre of hundreds now disappears. At this moment, they are fragile and alone. There’s only one light ahead, one light that sparks through solitude. A light that comforts them in their fragile state.

The audience: They hold their breath. They were touched by something that they do not yet know how to fathom. Their minds, which just a few seconds ago, were still trying to keep up with the plot, now freeze to empathize with the actors. What is in front of them is real. Somewhere in the audience, the directors stopped murmuring the lines along with the actors on stage. They stopped being directors. The play that they have directed for so long now seems unfamiliar. They, too, are like any other attendees. The ending that they just witnessed is not the ending that they have gone over during the last re- hearsal, or any rehearsal for the matter. This ending opened their eyes to a new chapter, one that puts a smile on their faces. Curtain call.

The actors: Standing in front of the audience, waving as a team, the cast are still trying to catch their breath from what just took place. They look into each other’s eyes. In midst of the noise of the crowd, of the clapping and cheering, they connect with each other without speaking a word. They probably are not aware that after the performance, the memories go on.

The audience: Shouting. They shout from the top of the lungs. Yes, it’s true that they are very confused by the whole play. They need more time to process the entire performance. They need to sleep on it to decide what to make of it. For now, it’s going to be a strange show, but that’s not necessarily a neg- ative thing. Being strange is admirable in its own way. The directors probably agree. At this point, it’s up to the audience to determine whether they enjoyed the show. As for the directors, they have done their best, they have had fun. A successful play, to them, is a play that captures their vision in a way that will communicate it well to the audience. As for the cast, the feeling is mutual.

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