In the book Charlotte’s Web the spider Charlotte hatches a plan to save her friend Wilbur the pig from the butcher block by spinning a nice word about him into her web. They send the rat, Templeton, to the dump to come back with some word that she can spin. He comes back with the word “Humble.” At first no one thinks this is the right word, but Charlotte explains that the word humble has two meanings. “It means, ‘not proud’ and it means ‘low to the ground.” Both of those describe Wilbur to a tee,” she says. And in the end, it does save Wilbur’s life.
There is a certain kind of theatre, a kind I’ve been calling “Theatre on the Ground,” that is based on Charlotte’s idea and, when played properly, can also save lives. Theatre on the Ground is theatre that is not proud. It does things that are risky and unconventional, and frequently works without money. You can see the strings and the tape and the screws in a Theatre on the Ground production. It makes no attempt to pretend that it’s not theatre. Theatre on the Ground is different from Broadway, different from LORT, different from Equity. People who work on the Ground do not deal with IATSE, and most of them have never seen an MSDS sheet.
But none of this is intended to imply that the makers of Theatre on the Ground are not producing wonderful, thoughtful, engaging pieces of theatre. They are. And that’s the beauty of it. Take, for example, my current production. It’s using the text of Ibsen’s classic Hedda Gabbler, but it’s set in a crazy non-theatrical room, using a mixture of found furniture, period costumes and the existing architecture. The characters are delivering their lines from around banisters and atop fireplaces. They’re writhing on top of pianos wearing corsets and see-through lace skirts. And just when you think you’ve made it to the end, Hedda’s spirit (embodied by a huge sheet of white China silk) goes floating up the stairs.
The best part is that everything they accomplished was done without being given a single cent from the producing organization. There was some stock wood and furniture, which came with the room, and some stock costumes and props that were borrowed from an associated theatre, but it was done without incurring any rental cost. Nor was any cost incurred when the set designer journeyed to florist shops around town picking up their dead flowers for set dressing, or when some scavenging from a strike produced all of the gel.
And in the end, these back-corner, out of the way, Theatre on the Ground pieces – like Hedda Gabbler – might even save a life. Not the life of the people coming to see the show (though I wouldn’t be surprised if that was true sometimes too), but the lives of the show’s creators. Being able to create in the style of Theatre on the Ground is one of the most valuable tools today’s theatre-makers can be given. It allows them to be free of the pressures that come with creating under a budget, because once you’ve tried to create without one, it’s easier to appreciate having one. It makes you think outside the box, think harder, and think faster. It even makes you think about whom your friends are (if only in the context of what you can borrow from them). Most of all, it makes you appreciate having resources, because there’s nothing like having nothing to remind you how nice it is to have something. And that appreciation, expressed in the form of saving and scrounging, saying “please” and “thank you,” and taking extraordinary care of each resource, can go a very long way.