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More or Less?

   The trend of the bare stageMinimalism has been a theater buzzword for decades now, reaching back to the Dadaists and stretching forward to the damp basements and 20-seat houses of the Chicago back streets and loft spaces. Past use of minimal design elements have been typically about artistic choice (or size of theater), but a new trend toward minimalism appears based in both economics and dramatic filtration. Theater companies and audiences, no longer enraptured with the scale of production and more inclined to seek emotional truth during harsh times, seem drawn to the bare essentials. Two actors, a desk and a table lamp are all that some companies need to engage and captivate their patrons.  Just as music and art have recently become more scaled down and raw, theater is using tough times to produce something new built from its base form. The modern theater artist’s current desire is to dig down to the utter core of presentation and reveal the stage’s dim, messy and human heart.
   For years the tone of Chicago theater was dim and messy, based on its hardscrabble attitude toward any kind of artistic endeavor. The buildings, the bars and the neighborhoods seemed to work against true emotional expression, shutting it down before “weakness” could take hold and reveal harsh realities. Theater was the counter to this repression, and the stories that were told on Chicago stages were about people who lived hard on the outside as well as the inside. As the years went on, the rough-and-tumble mode of theatrical delivery invaded every storefront and every mainstage, from Second City to Angel Island. But like a heavyweight fighter who ages with every blow, the “Chicago style” couldn’t last forever, the weight of its in-your-face quality buckling as emotion began to be covered by bravado.
   Seeking another way, companies began to turn toward spectacle. The lavish show became the norm (and wealthy contributors became the standard) as actors began to fly from high wires, techno beats filled the air and shows were both party and play. Just as these companies began to reach their heights, the recession took the wind from their sails, leaving them reexamining their aesthetics, their futures and their reasons for doing theater.
   Those companies with good instincts and a flair for taking risks found that they could present more by doing less. The prime example of this was The Hypocrites Theater Company’s 2008 production of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, produced in the basement of the Chopin Theatre and directed by David Cromer. From the outside, The Hypocrites appeared to constantly be pushing the envelope of production, trying to make less into more by using dramatic and bright set pieces, lavish and unusual costumes and a good amount of seemingly hi-tech sound and light equipment. They appeared poised on the brink of a new discovery; that theater artists could make small into big by just believing they were big in the first place. A Hypocrites show would blow you (and your mind) out of the water and wonder how next they were going to top themselves.
   The Hypocrites, defying expectations once more, found a way to top themselves by reversing their theatrical trajectory. By costuming their actors in “everyday” clothes, using the barest of set and ignoring the most traditional of other design elements (leaving the house lights up, in fact), they built themselves a huge hit with Our Town. The decision to begin with a classic script and tell it like an evening at home with family (including the good interactions as well as the bad) was a complete revelation. The addition of a perfectly and theatrically designed surprise “moment” only enhanced the show’s minimalism. One walked out believing they hadn’t watched a play, but instead sat in a room of like-minded folk and had a meaningful conversation. Paring down the show’s theatrical elements had brought a human quality back in and focused it like a microscope, creating energy, provoking thought and building theatrical
   Other productions similar to The Hypocrite’s “emotional-coring” of Our Town followed, such as A Red Orchid Theatre’s production of Mistakes Were Made by Craig Wright, Writers’ Theatre’s production of Oh Coward! devised by Roderick Cook and Theatre Oobleck’s production of An Apology for the Course & Outcome of Certain Events Delivered by Doctor John Faustus on This His Final Evening by Mickle Maher.  These three shows, as well as scores of others either nearing production or currently in development, are prime examples of how scaling back can remind us what good theater truly should be:  strong and necessary medicine for the soul.

Published: February 07, 2010
Issue: February 2010 Innovation Issue


Choices were made...
Interesting article, and your theory regarding our desire for minimalist stage design seems pretty right on. However, Mr. Cromer's production of Our Town is a problematic anchor for your argument. Thornton Wilder's play explicitly calls for the minimalist production it received from Cromer and company: bare stage, rehearsal costumes, miming, a friendly and conversational tone to the evening. The brilliance of that production was not due to a radical re-envisioning of Wilder's work, but a faithful staging of a great American play. The one change Cromer did make to Wilder's suggested scenography was in that last moment you mentioned. Wilder calls for an even barer stage for that scene; Cromer's choice was the polar opposite of minimalism. You could argue that the Hypocrites chose to produce this minimalist play (written in 1938, a few years before the minimalism movement really took shape) and their audiences came to see it because of the desires you describe. However, it's difficult to argue that the design decisions of the Our Town production team were based in anything but Cromer's commitment to discovering new life within older plays through faithful examination - not conceptual overlaying. Interestingly, your article has pushed me to think about how this desire may be influencing the choices of other theater artists. As a playwright, have you felt pressure to write more minimalist plays? Has that desire for minimalism affected the way we market our plays - our poster design, even? It has also reminded me that Wilder was staging a very similar rebellion against spectacle and lavish production values: what can we learn from his struggle? Thank you for an engaging piece!
Brad, Feb-17-2010