Fly By Night: Theatricality and Awe in NMT

The first show I saw after moving into my new Manhattan apartment was Fly By Night at Playwrights Horizons. After a week of unpacking, job hunting and bill paying the ONLY thing I missed about my upstate NY backwoods hometown was the night sky and how bright the stars get when there are no other lights for miles. Needless to say, I was reduced to a blubbering mess in the middle of act two when presented with a blackout followed by a moment of theatrical awe – the light of a single zippo lighter followed by the live creation of a night sky reaching slowly from the proscenium to the back of the theatre. The person in me walked out of the theatre transformed in a unique way while the director in me wondered how I can recreate moments like this in my own work.

The week after I saw Fly By Night I spent a lot of time thinking about why that moment was so effective. Obviously the show was well written, intelligently designed, and masterfully executed by the director and actors alike but there was something more – a magic to it. Carolyn Cantor’s direction made me weep over a theatricalized night sky not because it made me believe it was a night sky but because I let myself believe it was a night sky. The production of Fly By Night, both in writing and direction, masterfully uses theatricality; instead of covering up the means of theatrical production they repurpose them to serve the story telling. As an audience member I was able to let myself believe I was watching a night sky because the people on stage were not trying convince me what they were doing was real life; instead, they told me it was a story and invited my imagination to do its part. (During the show, a narrator LITERALLY walked out and told me it was a story.)

It then occurred to me that this notion of theatricality and repurposing the means of production to serve storytelling has been present in many of the shows that I love. Julie Taymor’s The Lion King allows us to believe a dancer is a gazelle by presenting us with a puppet and asking our imagination to fill in the blanks. In Diane Paulus’s swanky revival of Pippin we are presented with incredible acrobatics but know that Pippin is sewing his wild oats in “With You.” The Fantasticks has run for ages and been done internationally and capitalizes heavily on asking audience’s imaginations to meet it halfway.

The company of Fly By Night. Photo via Playwrights Horizons.

The company of Fly By Night. Photo via Playwrights Horizons.

In the world of film and television where audiences are bombarded with convenience and naturalism, the notion of theatricality may seem like a dying one. I argue, however, that television and movies provide audiences with a masterful education in what it looks like to be human, which prepares their minds and imaginations to fill in the blanks left by abstraction and theatricality. The theatre’s job is to invite people to believe, not to convince people something is real. Television and film give people a naturalistic reference point to fill in the blanks and believe in a theatrical gesture like an indoor night sky. Audiences will do this provided you simply ask them to sit back and enjoy the story you are telling instead of trying to convince them they are watching real life. That to me is just dandy.

As a director I like to challenge my audiences in order to create change, but before you challenge the mind you have to challenge the imagination; without imagination the mind only knows today and cannot create tomorrow. In order to prevent the audience from leaving their imaginations at the coat check I make sure I create opportunities in my shows where audience can merge their imagination and the emotional and visual vocabulary provided to them by television in order to believe in simple story telling. Once you get people believing in that there is no place you can’t go. If you want someone to fly, they can do it without wires. If you have to behead a character, you can do it with a piece of red fabric. If you want someone to see a beautiful night sky in the middle of Manhattan, well, I cry just thinking about it.

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