Founding Visions: Orson Welles and Dangerous Theater

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This is the fifth of an 11-part, weekly series in which the students in my theatre history class at the University of North Carolina at Asheville 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.

Today’s essay by Arthur Verde examines the genius of Orson Welles, and his willingness to constantly innovate in order to provoke new thoughts. Arthur asks why this quality is so rare. — Scott Walters

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“A social construct means we made it up, and an institution is a social construct that has survived long enough that it doesn’t strike people as strange. That doesn’t mean we can’t change them, it’s just difficult.” This was the reply given by a sociology student who was asked to explain social constructs and institutions as simply as possible. It is simple, indeed, but it rings true, doesn’t it? Don’t we all wish, at least on some level, that we could change the way things are for the better? It seems an impossible task, however. Who could possibly change the way things are? Only the Greats ever do or have, right?

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headerIs it, in fact, that we do not believe that change can be achieved, or is it that we simply fear change? Fear of change is called Metathesiophobia, and it is an inherent trait in humans. We like stability, tend toward routine and make choices that are safe. We are comfortable with the familiar and know what works for us already. Why step outside of that zone of comfort and risk falling into some unforeseeable pitfall that life may throw at us? These are questions that stew in the background and almost always drive every decision we ever make.

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As I observe the theater world around me, as a spectator rather than a participant in the massive and complicated web that is theater, I see that it has become stagnant. It is stuck in a veritable rut. Regional theaters often reproduce last year’s tony award-winning play, with a complete restaging of its Broadway predecessor, and then go back to the classics, whether that be literal classics like the Greek dramas or whether it be plays that have become benchmarks of American theater, e.g., anything by Tennessee Williams, Tony Kushner, Arthur Miller and Eugene O’Neill (to name a few very popular playwrights). The status quo for theater today is to restage the mainstay plays with a new aesthetic, but largely without a new message. I observe this and can’t help but feel a disconnect when I read about Orson Welles and all the work he did with both the Federal Theatre Project (FTP) and the Mercury Theater. How did theater get here—where we rehash the classics the same way they have always been done—from there?

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Orson Welles - Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences
Orson Welles – Photo Credit: Courtesy of the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences

When Orson Welles was only 20 years old, he was invited by John Houseman to join the Federal Theatre Project. He then went on to direct the “Voodoo” Macbeth, The Cradle Will Rock (a cutting commentary on corporate greed by Marc Blitzstein), The War of the Worlds broadcast and Julius Caesar, set in Fascist Italy, just to name a few of his notable productions. All of these were controversial and cutting edge for their time. The Cradle Will Rock was shut down by the Works Progress Administration (WPA), days before its intended Broadway opening. In order to circumvent the restrictions placed on the production by the WPA, Welles staged an impromptu performance of the musical with Blitzstein sitting at a piano on stage while the cast members sang their parts from the audience.

Welles put on provocative theater, not with the intention of securing or playing to a certain audience, but to galvanize his audience. He wanted theatergoers to leave the theater engaged in heated discussions about the play and its intended meaning. His War of the Worlds broadcast is rumored to have caused mass hysteria when it aired. His “Voodoo” Macbeth only used black actors in 1936, something that undoubtedly caused great controversy in that the play opened 18 years before the start of the civil rights movement. Julius Caesar was set in Fascist Italy, during Mussolini’s reign. These productions were intended to spark debate, cause controversy and leave the audience thinking about the work, even after they left the theater.  

So what, you may ask? Orson Welles was a genius. We only have a few of those in each generation, if we’re lucky. It would appear, by the stagnant state of affairs, that the American theater is sitting on it’s hands waiting for the next Eugene O’Neill or Orson Welles to shake everything up. The system that has been established seems to be pointed towards the past. Theaters are constantly digging up old plays and basing them on what was done on Broadway in order to ensure ticket sales. Some plays now come with “Director’s Notes,” which are suggestions for set and staging based on the original staging of the play. Theaters want to produce musicals and plays that are well known and guaranteed to draw a crowd and sell tickets. They are afraid to produce works that are innovative, original or cutting edge because they would challenge the tried and true formula for selling seats. That fear of change is making theater stagnant.

Theater as a whole appears to be in a holding pattern, perhaps waiting for a new voice or a visionary to lead the way. All we need do is look back at the visionaries of the past, however, for theater to find its way past the fear of change. It is time for theater to shock the audience! Or why not go all the way out on a limb and truly offend them? Theater is supposed to dramatize life and reflect it back to us, isn’t it? If so, then it’s time that we stop producing the same takes on the same plays all across the country.

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Everyone follows the visionaries; they have charisma, genius, and seem to appear at the right place at the right time. But once they are gone, we often lose sight of what they stood for and the insights that we gained from their work. It’s as if the lights were turned off and both they and their ideas are gone, and we wander around in the dark and quickly forget the thrill and awe of standing in the light. Everything goes back to “normal” and we retreat to what is familiar and comfortable. An example of this is the Carolina Playmakers. The Carolina Playmakers is a theater company created by Frederick Koch. It was Kock’s vision that the Playmakers be focused on doing “folk” plays that were “realistic and human.” Now that the visionary is gone, the Playmakers Repertory is doing Sweeney Todd in their 2015-2016 season. They’ve lost their “vision” and resorted to the comfortable, seat selling, repertoire. That’s the problem.   

Theatrical ideals are never perfect or static; they adapt to the times in which they exist. Hence the birth of the Barter Theater, which sold tickets in exchange for goods and services during the Great Depression. But the one consistent thread through all great theater is originality and expression. Orson Welles said, “We prefer not to fix our program rigidly too far ahead, new plays, new ideas may turn up any day!” He was right. There are contemporary voices, with new ideas, waiting to be heard and to stir the American theater from its slumber! But theater must stop discouraging, stifling and hushing them because it is set in the old ways and the old plays. If there is to be any hope for a new and audacious theater, we have to start listening to those voices and go out on a limb as the visionaries of the past have. After all, that is where the fruit is.

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IMG_20151011_205835Arthur Verde is a sophomore intending to major in physics at UNCA. A former student district representative for the Florida State Thespians, Arthur has worked in numerous productions throughout South Florida.