twenty-second part, called “the subject XXII,” of a series of ‘letters’ written to you, the reader, towards a book called, theatre | writing

the subject

A conventional theatre has its ambulatories, foyer and public areas, where the audience might mingle, entrance through which the public comes into and exits the building, and entrance doors into the auditorium, often soundproofed, where ushers and front of house staff stand, doors which are shut during the performance and only opened should an audience member have a dire need or to extract a noisy child, or in the case of an emergency. Front of house, when they are able, attend on all three occasions, and, sometimes, will lurk outside the door, or prowl the ambulatory, that with the show under way is darkened, having only sufficient light should one of the three things occur, for the audience member to find the loo, let the child out, for whom some theatres provide a separate room, like a soundbooth, at the back of the auditorium, the sound piped in, and the stage seen through the glass, where those disturbing others may be calmed. Babies are put on the tit or bottle. Old or young ones who are scared or overcome can turn their faces while their companions can keep up with the action.

Ambulatories are darkened so that the light does not spill in to the darkened auditorium when its doors are opened by the one who has to leave or the ones who want to; and yet not entirely dark so that front of house can respond should events demand, throwing wide the doors for gas attacks or fire. Their torches at their belts they are often trained for medical emergency, like a friend of mine who had a petit mal seizure, went rigid and slid onto the floor. The FOH manager, Greg Ball, was indispensable in his aid and unflappable, except when the then prime minister threatened to visit and we wanted to push him down the stairs.

To leave by the stage-door, in a conventional theatre, you go through a door that leads onto the public areas, or through places we have suggested are defined by the sort of work we have called invisible. These are the wings adjacent to the stage—to reiterate, they are according to tradition; although even in open plan style performance spaces it is unusual for there not to be some some delineation between being on the stage and waiting to come on or being or coming off it. Although cases are common in which the audience is not privy to the exchange of public space for … and we want to say private, but this is the last thing that the stage is, and it as well as anything marks the peculiarity of theatre. Actors are already on, for example, and the audience wanders in or wanders through, say in the case of a gallery, that recent invention of the white box, against the black box theatre, and regards the pictures as if they were actors, or the bare strips of canvas or the empty walls as if they were pictures. They weren’t before being transmogrified by the space: they had to cross that line we have been talking about to undergo this metamorphosis from a pile of rubbish to a religious ritual, icon or experience. Which, in addition, we can say are neither matters of symbolisation nor of representation. An actor, across the line between offstage and on, does not represent Christ neither is she a symbol even for herself any more. An actor, like any artwork, is cut off from this recourse. … Whereas we, we go through the wings, in our conventional theatre, past the stagemanager’s station, where the props table is, down by the flies, where the wires and counterweights are for flying scenery, out an aperture often covered by a heavy black drape, to stop sound and light spill, turning left along a corridor.

Depending on the size of the theatre, there may be multiple levels of such corridors arranged in an hierarchy: the most important players, actors, singers, dancers have their dressing rooms nearest to the aperture that gives onto the wings, their doors opening onto the corridor closest to the stage. Those of lesser rank are stationed further away. Until we reach the chorus, who is lowest, and shares. Then there is the greenroom, or rooms, which is a social style of waiting room and used to be equipped with ashtrays, tat and memorabilia on the walls, old theatre posters, photos, but note, no or very rarely any drinks. Private intoxication barely tolerated. Social intoxication reserved for after the show.

We reach and descend the stairs, coming finally to a double-door, that is, a door that doubles as the fire-exit for the backstage area through which we have passed. One side is slightly ajar, an old sandbag serving as doorstop, keeping it from clanging shut. Or a pedal-operated ashtray. Or a tin of sand. And out the stage door there is an alley that you cannot reach from the side of the theatre that faces the street, meaning, its public face, its classical, baroque or modern facade. Still, it is a facade, even if glass, allowing, through the glass, the inner workings of the public areas to be seen from the street, the promenaders, the interval audience, ostentatiously enjoying its own company.

Outside the stage-door is brick. Or bare concrete. And some rubbish skips, both for bottles and for rubbish from the workshop, its loading-dock behind a metal rollerdoor a little further down the alley. How any of an admiring audience can be expected to meet us here I don’t know. So we have passed from invisibility to its other form.

And we have to ask about this distinction, that Donnellan makes, because haven’t we throughout our transit been more concerned with the auditory than the visible? I know the audience come to see a show, and, having surveyed the ravages of the opening’s debauchery in mirrors ringed with incandescent lightbulbs, and having put in eyedrops and done our makeups, and having removed them at the end of the night, and having left early after notes, yet we leave hoping to be seen or that there’s someone there to see us. But isn’t the stage less a line than a place to be heard? And isn’t it only part of a theatre when the stage is in an auditorium? Isn’t the sense of sound what unites the theatre? Isn’t it the reason we extract the howling kid?

So that the stage is not an image and the line we crossed when crossing the stage out into the wings is that between one kind of surface and another and there is no line. From the stage we hear of what happens offstage and all of the world is offstage (but still nowhere near entire). All of the world and its consequence is off: news of Oedipus’s death comes to us and is reported onstage. It is heard. Comes to us by report. The stage is the centre for this kind of reception, a kind which is in the hearing of the audience.

The stage, before being perceived, is heard. Or rather, it hears. And by the audience is overheard. The audience receives what is reported onstage. But the stage is at the centre of those reports. It is a receptive centre, a subject.

note: source references available on request–these will be part of the book, if it should come to pass.

If you would like to receive these posts, as they are written, as letters addressed to you, please send me your email address.