Can You Know Too Much?

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[BACKSTAGE is a series of posts focusing on the ‘Inside Baseball’ of the theater.]

It’s tricky business when you know how something you love is made.

backstage-with-anthony-byrnesYears ago, I had a wonderful English teacher, Professor Regan. At the start of his “Comedy and Satire” course, he issued a dire warning: “If you’re in this class because you love comedy – leave. Leave because I’m going to ruin it for you. I’m going to do the worst thing imaginable: I’m going to teach you how it works. And trust me, there’s nothing funny about that.”

He was right. He did, at least initially, ruin it.

Instead of laughing at the punchline we started focusing on the setup. We couldn’t read with an innocent mind anymore. Once he showed us the mechanics behind the scenes, our innocent minds were gone forever.

The same is true in the theater (or with anything you love). Once you know how it’s made, you can’t sit in a theater and simply be an audience member. You notice things; you think about direction; you think about action; you think about beats; you sometimes re-block the scene in your mind.

The same is true for a chef, or an architect, or anyone who makes something whether it’s a piece of music or an elaborate legal argument. Innocent joys disappear with experience. You can no longer just enjoy the salad – you need to “analyze the flavor profile.”

It can be a real drag . . . but it also opens the door to a profound appreciation of true artistry: an experience of moments where your knowledge of how it’s built leads you to respect the artists who built it.

This happened to me during playwright Will Eno’s “Thom Pain (based on nothing)”  playing now at the Geffen Playhouse. I’ll talk about the play and Rainn Wilson’s extraordinary performance during “Opening the Curtain” on Tuesday (in brief, you need to see this show).

I suppose I should offer you the same words of caution that Professor Regan shared with me, if you want to experience the show with innocent eyes – stop now. See the show. Then come back and read this because in explaining these moments in the show, I might ruin them for you. You might notice the technique rather than simply experiencing the art.

OK, you were warned . . . (glad you stuck around).

Those moments, they are light cues.

There are a couple of light cues that brought a profound smile to my face. They aren’t flashy. If you don’t love and appreciate good design you’d probably miss them. In fact, part of what I love is their subtlety.

The second light cue is easier to describe than the first so let’s start there (and to be clear, I’m talking about the lighting design as much as I am the specific cues).

The show is performed in the smaller theater at the Geffen. It’s a bare stage (mostly). We’re in what looks like a black box theater. There’s a small built-up platform stage, nothing fancy. Upstage left, on the stage, is a water pitcher, a bunch of highlighters. Above the stage is a half hung electric, giving the appearance that maybe we’re still in tech. Upstage right is a partially revealed poster that looks like it might be announcing a vaudeville act from the 1930s. It’s mostly hidden by black curtains that are drawn back to uncloak this large poster and, in the corner, the door to backstage.

Early in the show, our protagonist, Thom Pain (played by Rainn Wilson) opens this backstage door to look for something. It seems accidental. We see the backstage hallway, florescent lights, the kind of props and scenery one always sees crammed into backstage hallways. It all seems unconsidered at first – like perhaps this wasn’t supposed to happen or as if he’s revealing a part of the theater we aren’t supposed to see. After all, fluorescent ceiling lights? That can’t be part of the design, right?

Stick with me because these details matter.

Imagine you open a door from a dark room into a lighted hallway. You know how the light from the hallway will cast a beam into the dark room? Can you imagine the diagonal line across that door that marks the darkness of the room and the brightness of the hallway?

That very thing happens. Nothing special. It’s the pale whiteness of the ceiling lights in the hallway marking the backstage door. We don’t even register it – it’s just what happens.

Fast forward 40 minutes, close to the end of the show, the narrative is coming to a close. The threads of the play are being tied together. Almost imperceptibly that line on the door changes. Now, this is in the background. We, the audience, aren’t focused on that door but that cool white florescent light becomes warm stage light. Daniel Ionazzi, the set and lighting designer, has perfectly matched that diagonal line that was earlier cast by fluorescents and replaced it, or in a way overwritten it, with stage light. Then he slowly, gradually increases its intensity before fading it out.

It’s magical. In subtle ways, it shifts the focus of the room not by drawing attention but by changing our relationship to the background – by making the unconsidered diagonal of fluorescent light a part of the art, a part of the story.

Hopefully, the regular audience recognizes none of this. Not that it doesn’t register with them but the actual technique, the mechanics are likely invisible.

The same is true with a beautiful, silent, poignant moment center stage earlier in the show.

Our protagonist is standing center stage grappling with . . . well, with life. Words have escaped him. His stories led him nowhere or rather they’ve led him here – to this moment. Nothing is happening – at least physically. He’s standing still. He’s not saying anything. He’s not doing anything but we can see the emotion in his face. We can see the struggle welling up.

While this is happening there’s a simple light cue that ever so gradually increases the intensity on just Rainn Wilson’s face. It’s a light cue like a James Turrell light sculpture. It reveals itself through time almost imperceptibly in the same way that your eyes adjust to a dark room. It’s as if the emotion of that moment is translating simultaneously into light, as if the struggle is somehow causing us to see our hero more clearly (it’s Artaud’s notion of the actor’s soul revealing itself through struggle but here it’s both the actor and the designer working in concert to make that soul burn brightly).

It’s genius . . . and at its best, it’s a cue designed not to be noticed.

It’s these moments, when the design transcends your knowledge, when you appreciate knowing . . .  when your respect of technique and your love of the art come together.