Unexpected Upsurges

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At a performance of The Millionairess this week at the Shaw Festival in Niagara-on-the-Lake ON, an unplanned upsurge of the real occurred when the stage lights went out unexpectedly twice in quick succession, leaving the actors onstage in the dark. In the spirit of theatrical performance, a witty quip about paying electrical bills, done entirely in character, smoothed over the incident and elicited resounding applause from the audience as the actors managed to play it off. This is an interesting upsurge of reality: that of the unwanted upsurge, rather than the planned aspects of reality in site-specific, verbatim, documentary, and autobiographical theatre. Things such as an actor’s spit during a speech fluctuate across the fine line between being ‘real’ (the actor’s spit), and a part of the play world (the character’s spit). This sort of straddling of two identities is much like Wittgenstein’s duck/rabbit as the ‘realness’ vacillates and can be convincingly categorized either as part of the real world or part of the play world. Such an undesired upsurge as an electrical blackout is different, however, in that the audience is generally well aware it is not a part of the play world. The actors who are able to try to incorporate it into the performance and play it off are seen as talented and are rewarded for their improvisation. In this instance, reality is seen as a kind of obstacle to the performance. Overcoming the upsurge of the real and it’s potential for the unknown of what will happen next is seen as an accomplishment, perhaps again speaking to the audience’s desire for unique, unpredictability in theatre experiences (a common theme I’ve noticed in my research to date).

What is interesting is in the differentiation in film. In movies, when a spectator notices a continuity error, a technical error, or other such mistake, it is seen as a flaw or accident and meticulously tracked. One needs only look at the pages of the International Movie Database to see forums and articles devoted entirely to catching and recording such errors. A boom mic invading a screenshot, the reflection of the camera in a mirror on set, or the background of a scene changing ever so slightly from one frame to another are seen as invasions on the veracity and verisimilitude of the film as a whole and are far less likely to be celebrated or indeed even forgiven by the audience. Why is it that reality and upsurges of the real are treated so differently when comparing these art forms? It seems likely some sort of cognitive difference is at work, wherein the theatre audience is primed to accept representation and is thus more willing to overlook invasions of reality, while the film audience is accustomed to seeing true-to-life presentation on screen; nothing is out of place in the movie world and the audience isn’t required to pretend the existence of something. For example, in a play, we might be encouraged to consider a plain wooden chair as the throne of a rich king, whereas in film even if a king and throne is not realistic, we will see a realistic throne on the screen before us. Thus, when the reality on screen doesn’t match the reality of a mic in the shot, we are unable to reconcile the two as easily as we are in the Wittgenstein duck/rabbit quality of the theatre that much more easily fluctuates between worlds.

– Kelsey Jacobson (Research Assistant)

image from: http://www.apartmenttherapy.com/survey-1-46215

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