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Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Theatre For Thought, March 22, 2011

Here Today, Here Tomorrow
Filming the occasional production is a novelty but filming every production would be an act of historical significance. 
joel fishbane

Centaur’s new season proves that although plays get a second life, productions are not so lucky. Of the four remounts, only one (Haunted Hillbilly) will reunite the original creative team - God of Carnage will not feature the original Broadway cast, nor will the new version of Pierre Marivaux’s 18th century farce be resurrecting the dead. In this we have a subtle reminder: only text is forever. Actors have known this for years: the thrill of live performance comes from the knowledge that each show is one of a kind. If there is certain poetry to this idea, that poem is bittersweet. How can we not mourn all the productions we have loved that have disappeared forever? 

Fortunately, technology is making it possible for this to change. For years now, the Stratford Festival has been releasing films of specific productions, an endeavour which culminated in last year’s national screening of The Tempest. It was a charming event, but it begged a thorny question: why should only certain plays receive such treatment? Filming the occasional production is a novelty but filming every production would be an act of historical significance. 

It’s not hard to imagine a YouTube-like website which is actually a library of Canadian theatre.

Obviously, not every Canadian play can be shown on the silver screen; nor is there a market for every play to be released on DVD. But it is important to remember that in making these films we are creating a vital historical record. Technology has allowed us to make the transitory permanent. Theoretically, we could capture not just one show, but all the shows in a season – or in a city or in the country.

It’s not hard to imagine a YouTube-like website which is actually a library of Canadian theatre. A digital database, it could allow people to watch productions years after they’ve occurred. Aside from the entertainment value, such a library would be of great benefit to directors, actors, designers and playwrights. Wondering about a dead author’s original intention? Consult a production the author directed while alive. Want to compare how two companies interpret the same play? Watch both versions. 

The most obvious hurdle, aside from money, is the unions, who have strict guidelines about the filming of theatrical performances. But surely a compromise could be reached, since this would not be a collection designed for commercial gain. Rather it would be a theatrical library, an archive of Canada’s theatrical legacy. 

It’s a Wonderful Life gained fame only when it was shown on TV; Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess only received international acclaim after his death.

Some would suggest that only the innovative productions should be filmed or that there is no need to create a historical record of a show that failed. To them, I would only remark that there are numerous films, books and plays that succeeded long after their initial run. It’s a Wonderful Life gained fame only when it was shown on TV; Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess only received international acclaim after his death. Who are we to decide what future generations will applaud? Centaur’s production of Instructions to Any Socialist Government… is now getting mixed reviews. For all we know, it’s a production ahead of its time.  

Recently, a proposed film version of the musical Gypsy was axed by librettist Arthur Laurents. It would have been the third time the show has been filmed. In explaining his decision, Mr. Laurents paraphrased the show’s lyricist, the now legendary Stephen Sondheim. “You want a record because the theatre is ephemeral,” said Mr. Sondheim. “But that's wrong. The theatre's greatest essence is that it is ephemeral. You don't need a record. The fact that it's ephemeral means you can have different productions, different [versions] on into infinity."

There is much truth in Mr. Sondheim’s views (there always is), but he is blessed by the fact that Gypsy has long been a permanent part of the musical theatre canon. It is true that there will always be more productions of Gypsy. But not every show is so lucky. In many cases, we do need a record if only so the work we do today is not forgotten by the generations of tomorrow. 

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