Smoky night brings Breath of fresh air
As we set out for a Labor Day weekend of plays in Ashland the smoke of raging forest fires lay heavy along our southbound route, dulling skies and moods. We’d been advised in an advance email from the Ashland Shakespeare Festival that three outdoor performances had been cancelled due to smoke the week before but we held fast to our tickets and optimism.
Our hopes were rewarded with two days of performances – one indoor and the second outside on Ashland’s Elizabethan stage. But on the third day, smoke dropped the curtain on the outdoor production we had tickets to attend that evening.
"We sincerely apologize that due to the unhealthy levels of smoke in the air from nearby forest fires, we have decided to cancel tonight's performance of "Disney's Beauty and the Beast," read the email message that arrived about 6 p.m. as we were ordering dinner.
The notice outlined options for refunds or exchanges and then proposed an alternative entertainment for the evening: The show must go on, cast and management had decided. In a first-time experiment, an 8:30 p.m. “concert reading” of Beauty and the Beast would take place in the Ashland High School auditorium. No costumes. No sets. No curtains. No orchestra. Just the actors and a stage.
The reading would be a “freebie” offered to confront the pall of disappointment shrouding actors and theatergoers. Why not give it a try? Off we went—four adults who have shared an annual Ashland trek for several years. We had no idea what to expect—but it seemed we had nothing to lose. We were wrong—had we skipped it we would have missed an evening of enchantment.
Two dozen metal folding chairs curved across the stage when we arrived at the high school. A piano and drums were positioned on one side. No grand orchestral overture announced the opening scene. Instead, a string of actors filed onto the stage in casual street attire—jeans, tee shirts, leggings, a hoodie.
Each took a seat and then stood, one by one, or in groups, to enact scenes that shape the story of a cold-hearted prince who has been transformed into a frightening beast because of his heartless ways. Unless he can learn to love and to be loved by the Beauty he has trapped in his castle, he will remain a beast forever.
The castle staff shares his fate, having been transformed by the spell into household furnishings. On the Elizabethan stage, these actors would be cloaked in costumes that identify them as a clock, a candelabra, a teapot. Here, in a high school auditorium they had only creativity to shape the image cast upon them by the spell.
Within minutes, they cast a spell on us—an audience of 300 or so willing witnesses to the wonder of the stage. We watched in delight as the candelabra spoke, raising his arms in goal-post position to signal his transformation. The lanky hall clock rocked in wooden rigidity when voicing his alarm. The beast surprised both players and viewers by lumbering into the audience to rage his anger at this fate.
On stage, seated actors nudged one another and smiled in delight at the improvisations of fellow cast members. We in the audience followed suit—turning to laugh with one another at the creative antics of this novel assembly.
It felt exciting, this performance that offered a glimpse of the interior promptings and emotions that give rise to a memorable portrayal. Actors in character but not in costume revealed more of themselves and in turn, asked more of the audience.
Every theatrical work calls on viewers for some level of the “willing suspension of disbelief” that brings to life the staged scenes before them. But this event bid us to use our own creativity, to join the cast in imagining scenes without the aid of visual props. At the end, we leapt to our feet in celebration. It seemed somehow we shared the success of a sparkling evening of theater.
But actor Michael J. Hume, a 25-year veteran of the Ashland stage who played Maurice, father of the Beauty in the production, bristled at my response to the performance when we talked a few days later by telephone. I called the evening an exhilarating display of “raw talent.” I effused about the undisguised intensity and joy displayed by performers in this impromptu performance.
“Why raw?” he interrupted. “I kept hearing that from other people after the show.” Raw can be painful, he argued. It might mean unfinished, unpolished, ill prepared. What I saw as “raw,” or unadorned, Hume saw as evidence of years of stage experience and professional training. “We know what we are doing,” he insisted. “We had done the show enough times that there was no panic about it.”
It’s true—the production opened in June and had been performed 25 times by then. Still there was freshness for the cast as well as the audience in this experiment. Seated on stage throughout the full performance, players watched scenes they had never viewed before. Heard songs they hadn’t listened to. In a regular production, they would be off stage when not in an active role.
“We kind of surprised one another and had a good time doing it,” Hume acknowledged. “I think we went much further than anyone imagined. We just instinctively fell into it and started making things up. The next day, we looked at one another and said, ‘Wasn’t that fun.' It scares us a little. You can’t bottle that. You can’t recreate that first-time run. The innocence of doing it the first time goes away, but having that accident the first time—we were pleased.“
So was I. Pleased to have been present on a night when the smoke of forest fires pushed aside the smokescreen of fancy dress and spectacular sets to offer two hours of clear, brilliant delight in bare bones, talented acting.
A week later, smoke cancelled the play a second time and management called a halt. Air quality was growing marginal, even inside the theaters. There would be no attempt to duplicate the spontaneous magic that broke the spell of smoky disappointment a few days earlier.
Perhaps that’s as it should be. As Hume says, there’s never another first time. Never the same charmed potion of people and place that generated one evening’s enchanted baring of a fairytale message about looking beyond exteriors. About seeing the beauty within.
Carolyn Scott Kortge of Eugene is a former Register-Guard editor and writer, and author of The Spirited Walker. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org