Story, Stage and Celluloid

 

Every passion has a story behind it, so I wanted to share my “history” of what gives my heart joy. Art itself has a fascinating history that I’ll attempt to tell along side my own. Here’s the history of art (one of the most fascinating subjects) in 10 minutes…(yeah right)…

“In the beginning…” is how the story starts, even in the Bible. When did the attempt to create other worlds and characters in the mind’s eye begin? From our earliest records of human existence, we can find paintings in caves, musical instruments excavated from the desert, and legends passed down through word of mouth. Guess you could call it a primal instinct…or perhaps a design woven into our DNA by a creator?

So…in the beginning, man began to tell stories to his friends, children and probably to anyone who would listen. In the beginning people told stories. It was the only past time besides ancient sports. Stories of his hunting trips, stories about his parents and grandparents, stories about a God…

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These stories eventually began to take on a life of their own. No longer where people satisfied just to hear the story…they had to experience it in a more idealized and visceral way. Story telling eventually turned into reenactments with music and all the excitement of experiencing the actual event. The stories became fabled to the point that they became legend, which until the legends became so big that they became myth. I remember my dad’s version of Little Red Riding Hood. It was epic and hilarious and nothing like the original. The metamorphoses of the story went from being a simple gathering around a campfire, to a full on, blown out parade of religious festivals. The one element that really ties all cultures together is a common heritage of these types of theatrical festivities. It’s as if we all had a common parentage. There is also another fascinating commonality about this history, which we’ll explore in a future article. Moving on…a few centuries later…  

The Greeks took the art of story telling to a new level. Ever been to a Greek play? Ever heard of comedy and tragedy (the happy and sad face masks)? The Greeks harnessed what they believed to be the most powerful way of telling a story and creating an emotional response in people. They built large amphitheaters for their audience (those that hear) with costumes, masks, music, and a chorus.  This was the beginning of Drama, which in its essence means, “to teach and delight.”

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“Catharsis” (the process of releasing, and thereby providing relief from, strong or repressed emotions) in the Greek theatre was their way of teaching a hard learned lesson (possibly a tactic of keeping Greeks good, clean recorded citizens). Oedipus Rex is a good example of a “cathartic” play in which a lesson is being taught, while The Frogs was performed simply to delight. Both, in equal balance, were considered good for your health. 

The Romans, who admired the Greeks, adopted much of their culture and architecture, especially when it came to theatre. However,  ancient Rome, being the rowdy city it was, was less concerned with the people’s health  than they were with profiting off them with explicit entertainment which consisted of live gladiatorial fights, dances, and mockery plays which were usually targeted at politicians and Christians. Think South Park of its day. This lavish venue was eventually doomed to sustain itself under their crumbling economy.  

One of the most influential contributors to drama in the live theatre venue was the early Church. With the growth of Christianity across Europe through the 11th to 14th centuries, craftsmen of all trades would come and bring their skills together in order to put on plays from stories in the Bible, since illiteracy was common and hand copied bibles were hard to obtain. Anonymous playwrights developed  what they called “morality plays” which were modeled after the fable format in which Christ told stories. Everyman is one of the most famous  morality play of its time.

Everyman

Besides being the first group to take their theatricals on tour, and being extremely interactive with their audience, the craftsmen used their ingenuity to develop special effects from sound effects, to fire-breathing monsters that would swallow a character whole on stage. Eventually, non-morality plays based on stock, archetypal characters were performed as well, most notably Commedia dell’Arte, who improvised sketches and coined the term “slap stick.”

It was the near the end of the Renaissance, when a young fellow who had been inspired by the Church, the Greeks, the Bible, Socrates and Chaucer decided to start his own acting troupe with a series of plays he had written himself (with an actual script). Coming from the merchant city of Stratford-upon-Avon, William Shakespeare was one of the most well read and well cultured individuals, who became a master of the double (sometimes triple) entendre. He managed to write about his time, by NOT writing in his time and yet his plays are always relevant. A brilliant dramaturgist before there was even a definition for it. There is a popular debate today on whether or not he actually wrote his plays, which I’m not getting into here. I figure somebody wrote them, so let’s give him the benefit of the doubt. His contributions to literature have inspired many adaptations in both theatre and film, and inspired modern writers such as J. R. R. Tolkien. 

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Although film is the youngest of artful mediums, there’s no denying that film has had the most powerful impact on us. When Eadweard Muybridge developed his motion-picture projector, many felt the same way about it as they did with the first telephone…it was cool…but probably won’t amount to much. How quickly that attitude changed with some of the first full length, silent films like Birth of a Nation and Ben-Hur. It was only a little over twenty years later that studios were able to develop higher quality sound and visual effects like they did for The Wizard of Oz

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With film having a shorter gestation period than live theatre, we’ve seen its quick evolution from silent film, to Technicolor musicals,  from sweeping epics to stark Woody Allen films, back to sweeping epics again, with the assistance of computer generated images. Film, as its predecessor, seeks to “teach and delight,” to propagandize and to inspire, with the human story at its center. 

I sometimes categorize all of art as “theatre” simply because the original meaning comes from the Greek word theatron, which roughly translates to, “a place to behold.” Whether is be the written word, a painting, a reenactment, a staged play, or a short film, they are just different formats in which we behold a story. It’s ALL theatre.

Out of all my required theatre classes as an undergrad, the most interesting were my Theatre History I & II classes with my professor Dr. Michael Greenwald, co author of the Longman Anthology (what we theatre majors referred to as the “theatre bible”). Not only was he a fascinating teacher, but the material was ALL encompassing. From the earliest history known to man, till present time, we have never been without “theatre” (and everything that that word implies). From peasants to royalty, from the state and the Church, “theatre” is the mode of expression by the human race. I went from asking “Why theatre?” to appropriately asking “Of course, why NOT theatre?” As a college student, the performing arts department was a safe place for me. After spending most of my life feeling handicapped in most environments, this was a place where I was not tolerated, but celebrated. I felt I had a irreplaceable role in the creative world and other artists became some of my favorite people. 

It was during my college years that my life would change drastically in such a way that theatre was no longer just “fun and games” to me but, what I considered, my calling. The fall semester of my sophomore year proved to be the most eventful. September 11th, 2001, I woke up with strep throat but got ready for class anyway. My mom turned on the news for us to see the first tower come down live on TV. I drove to campus in a blur, kind of forgetting the pain in my throat, and arrived to class only to hear that the second tower had just fallen. It finally came. I knew that my generation would eventually be thrusted into a war…and it began that day. It was a sobering thought for a teenager to say the least. I was performing several characters in The Wizard of Oz at the time, but with the chaos that ensued after 9/11, I felt rather silly going to rehearsal every night when so much suffering was going on.

A little over a month later, my grandfather passed away. My first real loss in this life. My granddad and I were very close, and his sudden death shook the foundations of my soul. He was gone, and was never coming back. Again, I couldn’t bring myself to go to the audition for our next season. Thankfully, my professor (knowing my heart for the department and what we were doing) put me in the show despite my absence. 

The third event (completely different from the first two events) was the release of the first installment of The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring. Anyone reading this would dismiss me as the most ridiculous nerd on the planet, but in my defense, I had never read any of the books. I didn’t know who J.R.R Tolkien was. I knew absolutely nothing about the story or any of the characters. I wasn’t even a fan of fantasy, for goodness sake’s. But how these books were brought to life on film was what influenced the turning point in my artistic life — I knew I wanted to be a film director…and these films made it very clear to me. As crazy as it sounds, this trilogy (as well as a dozen other films) is what got me through a very hellish time. THAT story will be next issues’s movie “review.”

Looking back, I had always been a film buff. Growing up with my dad, who is a lover of music, in particular movie soundtracks, he would often have some classic epic playing in the background on laser disk so he could hear the music (these were the days right before CD’s so google “laser disk movie” if you’re too young to remember). As a child I got to see classics (as well as listen to my Dad’s commentary on them) such as Lawrence of Arabia, Ben Hur, How the West Was Won, The Big Country, The Man Who Knew Too Much, Amadeus, The Hunt For Red October, A Man For All Seasons, the list goes on. I always considered this a gift from my Dad and my love for film started at a young age because of him.

So in the years following graduation as a Theatre Arts major who wanted to venture into film, during a rapidly changing social climate, I kept asking myself “is this a worthy profession? Can I make a difference in the lives of others using the medium of film?” Looking back now at the films I grew up with that either made me smile, cry, laugh, or gave me inspiration and hope when I was facing difficulty, I know I’m not the only person who has experienced those things. If I can help bring anyone out of the funk  I was once in with my writing or visualization, then I know with certainty, that this is a most noble vocation. 

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