The Brits are raving about Baltimore's Action Theater. Playing in the Edinburgh Fest in August, Action garnered a five-star review from The Scotsman newspaper calling Action's production of "Becketland" "boldly conceived and memorably luminous," while The Stage, a London publication, referred to it as "a sensitive production, a marvelous production."
Beginning in early August and spilling over into September, Edinburgh is the center of the world for English-language creative theatre events, some traditional, some innovative, some aggressively experimental. This year Baltimore's own Action Theater opened August 8th and ran through the length of the festival. They played every single night. In the words of Artistic Director Tony Tsendeas, "We put so much effort and so much money into doing this, we have to give it all we've got; we just couldn't leave the theatre dark for even one night."
Their performance, "Becketland," is an evening of one-acts by Samuel Beckett, theatre-lovers' theatre in one of its pure forms. Distilling the wine of human experience to a fine brandy of theatricality, Beckett achieves a disconcerting effect. Soap opera this is not. For all the intensity of feeling, the vivid, passionate need expressed, we are not called to empathize, but to consider. Beckett wants us to think about it.
Action Theater does not define itself as an "actor's theatre," although the company concept certainly seems integral to their work. Both Tsendeas and Rob Bauer (whose impressive gifts allow him to design sets as we11 as perform major roles) have declared their commitment to "total" theatre, where all elements-text and performer, lighting and stenography and sound-work together to achieve the ultimate creation.
And they reach their goal: the actor becomes one instrument in the orchestration, aware of his or her interchange with the technical elements as with other characters. Thus when two sleeping characters are discovered as the lights come up slowly, the lights stir the characters, are part of the waking-up process. In the words of Susan Sontag, "this is acting of bone and blood and marrow."
One of the benefits of a continuing, coherent acting company, as with any company of dancers or of musicians, is the ease with which they work together creatively. There is time and space for interchange, experiment, for developing the depths and the many facets of the artist's rich treasure of personae. Rivalries and ego-games are unprofitable in this setting, as opposed to attitudes engendered in commercial theatre or commercially-minded regional theatres where actors are pawns of management.
And what of the audience? As a student in Paris, this writer once sat in the audience at the Comédie Française, waiting for the magic moment when the house dimmed and quieted just before the curtain went up. But still in the bright light and chatter, the audience suddenly began to applaud and laugh. I followed the gaze of those who were applauding, up to the first balcony front boxes where I saw a woman in a large, flowery garden-party hat, laughing a bit at her admirers and finally bowing slightly. The audience was applauding the hat.
Another night, at another theatre, the formidable Jean Vilar as Hitler in the final speech of "The Resistible Ascension of Arturo UI" was shrieking toward the audience, demanding a yes or a no. The audience responded loud and clear with a passionate, almost violent, "No!"
What kind of an audience are we? Actors here relate stories of audience members, usually a young generation, carrying on conversations as though they were sitting in front of their own television sets. Annoying, almost scary, to think that for these jabberers living actors are no different from canned images.
Yet conversation-vital discussions, heated argument, about a show, a script, a performance-is one of the fruits an acting company relishes. The company is doing what they do in order to bring more life to life, to add dimension and depth to the routine of our ordinary lives and our usual ideas.
Audiences will get the quality of theatre they demand. It is certainly time we began to consider quality here in Baltimore. Do we talk over coffee or a beer or the dinner table about the ideas in theatre, as Beckett would have us do? Do we take our adolescent youngsters to adult theatre and teach them to discriminate as to quality in this art form? They are the audience of the future and should know the difference between one theatre and another, just as they know the difference between one restaurant and another.
Action Theater is a world-class troupe; their resounding success in Edinburgh certainly attests to that . The question is no longer "Can Action Theater make it?" They have made it. In any European country, their status and economic security would now be assured.
The question is, rather, will Baltimore support and sustain and thus merit such a company? A better level of public and corporate funding is required, for creative work must lead and not follow; it cannot be guided by the lowest common denominator of public taste to draw crowds and still remain true to its calling.
Also needed: more of Baltimore's best and brightest in the audience, cheering, hissing, roaring, howling... Then arguing, over a late supper, about meaning, about interpretation... Caring for this treasure of a company.
Kate Green, a Hampden resident, is an actor and theatre teacher who has worked in those fields in New York and Paris as well as Baltimore.