Recently, I had the chance to rediscover theatre. I went to see a play, for the first time since restrictions have eased here in the UK. This passed summer marked our one year of CineMavericks, and we were really busy with our summer virtual film camps and in-person school workshops.
Getting back on track with teaching was important, but I realised that so was keeping up with cultural events here in London. For me, being inspired helps me inspire others. And I have to admit, it was truly magical to see a play in real life, react to the live performances, and share the moment with a fellow audience. It's a powerful experience that I hope you all get to go to if you have the opportunity to do so.
Capturing the Passage of Time
The play I went to see is called Leopoldstadt by the great Tom Stoppard. It chronicles the lives of one Jewish family in a Viennese neighborhood, over 60 years. As you can imagine, seeing the generations live through prosperity and then extreme hardship was emotional. However, what I want to focus on now is how this play delt with that very device: that of passage of time.
The play starts in 1899, and finishes after 1950. In film, there are so many tricks we can use to back to any period and transcend space and time. The obvious one is flashbacks. This is used so often, and sometimes movies open on a flashback (or a flashforward), and the whole story is getting up to that very moment. Or it's intertwined with the main characters' present scenes. Either way, flashbacks are easy to do but it's precisely because of that that I am not a big fan. Sometimes, simply relying on this device may hinder us from finding really creative solutions to our unique story. Before deciding on adding flashbacks to our stories, let's ask ourselves what the style of our story is, and if there are any more appropriate ways to depict memory.
In this play, the scenes were broken down into segments, where we met a certain cast of characters for one segment - and then a different cast (playing their older selves) appeared with a younger (new) set of characters. And so forth. This was narratively sewn together in a linear way, and it really gave us a sense of their journeys from one era to the next.
Of course in plays it's difficult to have flashbacks, but there's no reason the playwright couldn't insert a scene that happened in the past, and then jump back to a present-day scene like in film. Here, he chose not to use flashbacks, and instead chose to have scenes jump in time, with the characters themselves threading the timeline.
Using Mixed Media
Just like Tom Stoppard used his own unique take on illustrating the passage of time, he also added a non-traditional element to his stage.
In between each segment (when the story jumps a few years), a projector screen appeared to transition the sets, and real-life documentary footage of the neighborhood, and the era, was playing.
Of course for me, I love when moving image can elevate a standard play, without it taking away from the beauty of a great mise-en-scène of course. This reminds me that audiences evolve, and that the medium (in this case theatre) should evolve as well. For example, especially since the pandemic we have been so accustomed to watching content on laptops and mobile devices. We are constantly on screens (for better - and for worse) and we engage with video storytelling as if it were second-nature to us. So it makes complete sense that found footage - which existed already - was displayed as a sort of ellipses to the play's timeline. It made the historical events that were featured much more real, much more present. It felt as if we were living them more, and it helped me stay engaged with these portraits of people - within the larger frame of History.
All this is just to say that there are so many techniques used in theatre (and other artforms) that as filmmakers we make choices about all the time. The question is which one is the right choice for our specific stories, and what elements do we feel confident to interpret as the right style? All storytelling is subjective, so whether these above techniques would suit you or not is completely out of the playwright's control. What is in their control is how they establish their unique point of view through bespoke techniques. What are you working on, and what tools are you using to make your story as authentic as possible?
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