Tuesday, September 18, 2007


New Old Theater has performed our Evening of Victorian Theater at three different locations now, with the fourth and final location this weekend in Baltimore. Response has been varied.

Our best audience has been at the September Storm re-enactment at Antietam. The atmosphere was enchanted. We performed in a tent, with viewers seated on the ground before us. With a 9:30 show, the audience started gathering about dusk and watched us light the candles for the footlights. The entire audience was in Civil War attire; many of them had seen our previous shows and were excited about a new performance. They knew how to interact with the cast, cheering, clapping and hissing. The actors responded with even larger gestures and stronger voices than we had been rehearsing, connecting powerfully with our audience. I went out to the back of the tent frequently and the candleglow, colors, and soft air lent a magical air to the event.

Re-enactors are always alert for period-correct details. During the farce, Curtis Chunk, the stage Yankee, was writing a letter to his "angeliferous" sweetheart, Miss Fanny Magnet. When he started scratching with a large turkey feather, someone called out, "What are you using for ink?" Our director had warned us that period actors were not to respond vocally to audience members, but non-verbal reactions were appropriate and in fact desirable. Curtis grasped the inkwell on the desk, raised it high, and pointedly dipped his feather in it -- this raised one of the loudest applauses of the evening, even getting cheers! After the show, we had many people coming up to us, praising the performance, and asking questions about acting and drama of the Civil War.

Takoma Park and Street, Maryland, audiences were much quieter. We know from comments afterward that they enjoyed what we gave them, but they were much more subdued. In these setting we were indoors, with electric footlights and modern surroundings. The actors were energetic, but not as transcendant of time and place. Whether the cast affected the viewers, or vice versa, is not clear, but it is obvious to me that period dramas play best when strongly supported by contemporary conventions, and period acting works best as part of a conversation with theatergoers. The lines of the play are merely a skeleton, and without personality to flesh them out, they refuse to live.

But in all our locations, it was obvious we were giving people a unique experience, one they found transforming. A farce got laughs and applause a century and a half after its last performance; King Lear worked as a melodrama, despite 21st-century sophistication. Interwoven with songs, a hornpipe, and a set of Yankee stories, this was the most authentic evening we've produced, and it left us eager to try more.

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