“Curtain up! Light the lights!
You got nothing to hit but the heights!”
Like a good book, a piece of theater needs to grab the attention of the audience. Beginnings are so important to pull an audience in and to get receptive with the event. It might begin leisurely like the Grapes of Wrath with a description of a turtle crossing the road or it might be scary on a dark and stormy night.
Call me Ishmael
Ninety-five percent of plays begin straight forward and with a get-down-to-it attitude. The houselights go out, the curtain goes up, the stage lights go on. Someone is “found” on stage, as we say; maybe it is Aunt Eller churning butter setting the scene for Oklahoma! Pardon the exclamation point, it comes with the show title.
Where is Pa going with that Axe?
A variation is making that first entrance. Actors and Directors love an entrance. In this case, the scene is introduced first. The suggested scenery in Our Town needs to be absorbed before the Stage Manager walks on to address the audience and point out the features in the town. Hal Holbrook in his one man show on Mark Twain began by blowing a puff of cigar smoke from the wings to bring him on.
It was a dark and stormy night
One of my favorites in dance is when the music starts before the curtain goes up. The lights are on behind the curtain and the dancers are already moving. This suggests that our scene has gone on forever, maybe they are sprites or fauns or pixies. This is called a “reveal” when the curtain goes up. Sometimes we bookend it by finishing the same way as the dance continues and we’ve had a little peek into a magical world.
It was a pleasure to burn
Like opening a book to the first page, the theatrical start is a transition from our real world to a place of imagination. Musicals often have an overture, showcasing the melody of the songs to come. It also showcases the conductor and his orchestra, often finished with a bow.
My favorite, though, is when the transition is built into the music and we are led straight into the show. Guys and Dolls ends it’s overture with the curtain rising and we see the cast frozen in mid-stride. This is Runyonland and it pushes the idea of how two-dimensional these cartoonish characters are going to be. With names like Harry the Horse, Nathan Detroit, Scranton Slim and Nicely Nicely Johnson; we are sure to be in for a good time.
All this happened, More or Less
The designer’s dream is when there is no curtain at all. With a ballet or opera, we have invested a lot into atmosphere. Getting a half an hour while the audience comes into the theater to feature the scenery and set the mood is a treat. Long ever-shifting light changes are satisfying but probably unnoticed by the layman. Maybe I’ll talk to the sound guy to add a bird chirping every two minutes. Let the cast wander into this heavy atmosphere to start the show. This is called “establish and build” because the audience remembers it even as the actor lighting blows it out.
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it.
Some transitions are famous and have to be done a certain way. One ballet opens with a black scrim down-stage, the lights are on behind the scrim (another reveal) and all we see is fog. The dancers are beneath the fog and then rise up out of it; like magic! Then, we raise the black scrim and all of that cold dry ice fog rolls into the orchestra pit which forces the instruments out of tune. Classic!
You better not never tell nobody but God.
I saw a show once in a small theater. It was by a company from Slovenia. There were three small audience sections with a total capacity of about sixty. A large square rug defined the performance space. A guy walks out and starts to gesture at us. It takes a while but we figure out that he wants us to turn on the lamps placed around the space; not stage lamps but lamps like you have in your house. So, we do and wonder; what is next?
Then a girl comes out with a huge platter of cookies. She walks along and serves us. While this happens, another man gets a woman from the audience to slow dance with him. This is a great way to start theatrical; the audience is paying close attention to the show. It wasn’t some crazy carnival clown running up the aisles, thank goodness. Not knowing if you will have to participate will keep your focus through out the play.
Call me Ishmael: Herman Melville, Moby-Dick
Where is Pa going with that Axe?: E. B. White, Charlotte’s Web
It was a dark and stormy night: Madeleine L’Engle, A Wrinkle in Time
It was a pleasure to burn: Ray Bradbury, Fahrenheit 451
This all happened, more or less: Kurt Vonnegut, Slaughterhouse-Five
There was a boy called Eustace Clarence Scrubb and he almost deserved it: C. S. Lewis, The Voyage of the Dawn Treader
You better not never tell nobody but God: Alice Walker, The Color Purple