I fell in love with the front end of the theater before I had met much of what really makes it work. Even as an adult I can remember saying “I’d pay just to see a theater’s curtain open.” And I’d grown up around auditoriums only equipped with “travelers” who disclosed their magic by opening along a rattling horizontal axis from a center divide in the drapery. By the time I first encountered the elegant lush silence of a curtain that rose and fell, I was a goner.
I wasn’t the only one. I was reminded of such thrall recently revisiting the stage directions—always replete and suitably dramatic—in O’Neill’s masterpiece, Long Day’s Journey Into Night. Conventional as the rubric must have been for him and his peers, there is an aura of magic in the expression “As the curtain rises.” Mind you, it’s taken him a page and a half to get there, and he won’t really start the play for another page and a half, but for me he’s waved the magic cue. By the time he gets to the directions ahead of Act Four, “As the curtain rises” occurs twice, once heralding the sound effects, then again launching the action.
These days curtains, whether they open and close or rise and fall seem quaint. A play’s setting is as utterly present as the seating when an audience arrives. With the quickening of artistic lighting design, various light shafts, glows and hues “warm” the space for a painting that may or may not include furnishings, architecture or landscape. These so critical elements of theater design invite us to borrow an energy we muster in galleries, before the ritual bearing the play’s name even begins.
It is as if we have re-discovered what the ancients taught Shakespeare and every other playmaker before romantics like me cooked up unimportant magic accessories. In the Bard's case, outside performances for at least 2,000 folks under broad daylight had to espouse the authentic sinewy dynamic of drama. It was not at all in precious scenic revelations. There was to be spectacle indeed, but not before there was a more important power in place: the degree of expectant wondering that drove an audience to actually need what was to happen.
In an audience’s warm afternoon wait at Epidaurus and even in the raucous “pit” of the Globe, the limitless possibilities inside a picnicking patron’s head and the bare performance platform conjured desires a great playwright had to satisfy. Any teacher covering one of the Shakespearean dramas over a stretch of sessions quickly learns how aptly such a playwright orchestrates our curiosity. Our buttons are adroitly pushed so that we even know what we want to know before a revelation is made. Only then do we have sound investments in answers and solutions. Resolutions and denouements will belong to us.
Whether it’s in a visual artist’s management of perspective or the writer’s timing of plot and character revelations, an engaged investment is engineered. Then only is the viewer, the artist’s audience translated from spectator to participant; powerful communication is achieved. The work of art is a shared human possession.
Accordingly, a contemporary playwright whom I favor pleads in one of his opening stage directions, “Please—no realistic set. Please.” From my entrance into the theater space, I am trusted to wonder, imagine, invest. The gigantic passions he is planning to send my way will become my own.