Building Theatricality

Working with my HS students this week on adding more theatricality to our performances.   Trying to define what that is and how we make it happen.   I decided having a common vocabulary about it was going to help a lot.

I tend to use the word magic a lot, or cool.   “At the end of this scene, some magic happens and then we move on.”

Not very helpful.

But what is it?  What makes theatre different from television or film.  Of course it has to do with the connection the performers have with the audience and even that the audience has with each other.   As an audience we are literally bearing witness to what is happening on stage.  And it will only happen once that way, no matter how ‘dialed in’ a show gets.

A great anecdote about the elusive power of theatre, attributed to Tom Stoppard, is getting close:

“Years and years ago, there was a production of The Tempest, out of doors, at an Oxford college on a lawn, which was the stage, and the lawn went back towards the lake in the grounds of the college, and the play began in natural light. But as it developed, and as it became time for Ariel to say his farewell to the world of The Tempest, the evening had started to close in and there was some artificial lighting coming on. And as Ariel uttered his last speech, he turned and he ran across the grass, and he got to the edge of the lake and he just kept running across the top of the water — the producer having thoughtfully provided a kind of walkway an inch beneath the water. And you could see and you could hear the plish, plash as he ran away from you across the top of the lake, until the gloom enveloped him and he disappeared from your view.
And as he did so, from the further shore, a firework rocket was ignited, and it went whoosh into the air, and high up there it burst into lots of sparks, and all the sparks went out, and he had gone.

When you look up the stage directions, it says, ‘Exit Ariel.”

-Tom Stoppard, playwright

So we decided to work on a common understanding of the vocabulary – the elements of theatricality.   I took these terms from a book called ‘Moment Work’ by Moises Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Company , based in Seattle.

moment work image
A great book – worth reading if you are involved in theatre production – particularly if you want to move towards devising.

Here are the terms we borrowed:


A lot of the words themselves were new to the students, but we dealt with what we did know, and started to look for examples of each of them in terms of theatricality – looking at clips from Curious Incident (SENSORY), Miss Saigon (NARRATIVE), Brief Encounter (EVOCATIVE) and Emancipation (VISCERAL).   I wanted to show a clip from Angels in America for ‘visceral’ but I probably would have been fired.

Our first production of the year lends itself more to realism than theatricality (Steel Magnolias) though I have some ideas to raise the level of stagecraft.

Our other production are Our Town (which has loads of potential) and Once on This Island (again – lots of potential).

I’m looking forward to digging in with these kids and moving beyond just performance into thoughtful design and stagecraft to make a little…..



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