Look Ma, that sink actually works!

Theater, by nature, is an unrealistic art form.  Unlike film which, generally speaking, tries to capture events in as authentic an environment as possible (on an actual city street, in a house, etc.); in theater, we’re putting events on an elevated stage, and scenery and such is never 101% realistic (in fact, I’d argue that the better sets are those that suggest the locations, rather than try to duplicate them).

Our audiences accept and embrace our suggestions of reality.  It’s part of the ‘suspension of disbelief’ of going to the theater.  Our audiences know that they can never see a car blow up like they can in a movie, but they’ll see a creative way of symbolizing that act.

And this is exactly why when we DO give them a spoonful of reality, it usually excites the audiences enough to remember and talk about that reality.

For example…

I saw Red last Friday, and one of the moments that got the biggest audible response from the audience was when one of the actors poured real red paint from one bucket into another.  You could actually hear everyone thinking, “Wow, there’s actually real paint in there!”  Then, of course (spoiler alert), the actors actually painted with it!

The set of Time Stands Still at MTC was a New York apartment, with a full-on kitchen . . . and it was a working kitchen!  Yep, when Laura Linney turned on the faucet . . . gulp . . . water came out!  They had plumbing!

In David Cromer’s Our Town, they fry up some real bacon, and the scent goes wafting through the air and gets even vegans craving a slice.

Theatrical design will never be able to compete with film design or any other “realistic” design medium, so why bother trying.

But, at key moments in your show, a designed-dose of reality can amplify an important issue.

  • Brad says:

    I worked on a production of “Raisin in the Sun” this past summer and we actually cooked scrambled eggs on stage. As much of a pain as it was to make that safe and able to be controlled, the effect was pretty awesome.

  • A favorite memory is seeing “Skylight” by David Hare at Actors Theatre of Louisville years ago. Didn’t have time to eat before the show, so my wife and I were starving and accompanying a college group to the show with a talkback after.
    So of course, what do they do but have a working kitchen on the set, they make a spaghetti dinner in act one and then throw the whole thing out. We smelled that homemade tomato sauce through the rest of the show. And the talkback. And came out of the theatre to find the neighboring Italian restaurant had closed ten minutes earlier.
    Bastards. (Good show, though.)
    I like to say that theatre is the most interactive, fully-immersive 3-D entertainment experience you can have. And if you go back to see it again, it’s going to be a little different every time.

  • David says:

    I audibly gasped at “Time Stands Still” when they poured that water out of the sink. It was an amazing moment for me, because it totally drew me in.
    And I was having huge cravings during “Our Town.”
    That makes all the difference.

  • DHicton says:

    Just never use real flowers on stage. That’s bad luck.

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