This is the ninth of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theater history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville (UNCA) respond to articles in Todd London’s anthology An Ideal Theater: Founding Visions for a New American Art. You can read the series announcement here.
In Melissa Benson’s essay below, she makes a surprising connection between the San Francisco Mime Troupe, UNCA’s current production of Wiley and the Hairy Man (which she is stage managing) and her future plans to form a theater troupe. As always, I hope you will share her article, and also comment below; the comments provide great discussion points for class! — Scott Walters
“Good theater can be made meaningful if new audiences are developed but once you are in the swing of radical theater, there is no stopping. You must go all the way or the enormity and power of the opposing forces will crush you.”
— R. G. Davis
Every so often I look at theater and wonder what got me here. What roped me in? This year especially, I have looked back often. It is my senior year, and soon I will be leaving a home, family and friendship that I never expected to form. As seniors and students we put on a show 100% done by us (with faculty mentorship, of course). Our student show is Wiley and the Hairy Man, and I am the stage manager for it. Wiley and the Hairy Man is a theater for young audiences show (TYA), which is a show appropriate for and geared toward all ages. Sometimes I find that there is pressure put on us by everyone around us, and sometimes I don’t feel the power to move forward. Then some nights after rehearsal, I realize why I do theater: the joy, the looks on the actors’ faces and the feeling of success pour over me. When a special part of the set is attached or a light is focused just right, I find harmony in this place.
For a while, the enormity and power of my opposing force made me wonder why I did theater. That opposing force was a fear of failure. I was not sure if I had the ability to be successful in my field and if I were, then what would I do with this path I chose? Then after one section and then another, we kept talking about “troupes” in class. At first, as usual in the theater world, it was only addressed in regard to actors. I kept thinking about this, though; every night after rehearsal I realized the bond that the director of our student show and I had, and how easy it was to have a working relationship that is built on trust and passion that we equally share.
This relationship has formed what is the beginning of a great working troupe, and, with our passion, I believe others can fall behind us. Together we want to open our own theater and carry our passion forward. Troupes have to start one person at a time and then grow from there. We have started our own troupe with a partnership and continue growing from there. With the hope of starting our own theater, we are in the process of researching how to begin a theater and how to follow the KISS motto, “Keep It Simple Stupid.” We want to start small and work our way up. The San Francisco Mime Troupe and R. G. Davis have showed that my hopes are not unreasonable and that they can lead to success by keeping it simple and then moving forward from there.
I suppose discussing a TYA show and the San Francisco Mime Troupe in the same breath might seem weird, but when I read Davis’ manifesto, the connections seemed plain. He describes how guerrilla theater should work and why it is important. A guerrilla theater is defined as “plays and skits used for political or social protest or propaganda and performed on the streets or in other nontheater locations.” This is the theory upon which Davis based The San Francisco Mime Troupe. He wanted to affect many lives with his works, and one of the best ways to do that is through work that is designed to grab people’s attention. He believed that you do not even have to advertise. He believed that performing warmups on the streets and yelling in front of people are enough to draw a crowd, and once you draw a crowd you have those people on your side. They will want to see your performances and want to see you succeed, and afterwards continue to see the performances your theater does. Another suggestion is doing the performances at popular times on weekends to get peoples’ attention, and he believes this is a good way to interject theater into other people’s lives.
Another great thing he talks about is having your work be under an hour. With currently working on a TYA show, I have found how important this is and how it can maintain people’s attention to have a shorter show. In addition, audience members do not have to “give up” so much of their time to see a show. At the same time it reduces the amount of rehearsal time needed and potentially reduces the number of designs necessary (though not the case for Wiley and the Hairy Man). This keeps with the KISS motto, which can help produce more theater, more often. R. G. Davis says “beg, steal, borrow equipment, make your own, and rent only when necessary. Try not to purchase anything other than basic materials that can be used for two or three shows — when in doubt invent!” He also said, “ask a painter to do a backdrop or a sculptor to make a prop. Using the outside resources are key to expanding your abilities and techniques used in the theater.”
Theater doesn’t have to be difficult, it can be simple — not boring, but simple — and still grab the audience’s attention. If you follow the “keep it simple stupid” motto, some things can be done in a more efficient and potentially cheaper way. Which also helps expand the ease of opening your own theater and company which I hope to do one day, and with R. G. Davis’ ideas in mind I believe it can be done.