Theatre Comes in All Forms
The other day I was fortunate enough to witness the explosive energy of Step Afrika! on stage. There was singing, there was dancing, there was acting, and an undeniable energy that was completely organic, without need of instruments, an orchestra, or fancy sets, props, and scenery. It was raw, unbridled, enthusiastic, and compelling energy. I loved it.
To give you a little bit of background (although I would highly recommend checking out the Step Afrika! website which I linked to above), stepping is an African American dance tradition that creates sounds off the body, whether that be clapping, stomping, patting the sides of your waste and shoulders (or the performer next to you!) Because there are no traditional “instruments” in sight when these guys perform, there is something wonderfully fluid and improvisational in watching the dance, even though you know these have to be some VERY tightly rehearsed sequences. But the performers are all listening to each other so closely, that even if something was to go wrong I think it would be barely perceptible to the untrained eye.
And so, without a traditional “actors come on stage, actors speak the play, actors exit,” this show was among some of the best theatre I have witnessed. Why? It’s hard to say. Sometimes theatre is just enjoyable for so many reasons, you don’t know why and it really doesn’t matter. But if I had to pin it down to a couple of specifics, I would say it is because these performers always took care of their audience. It would have been very easy for their mesmerizing and complex choreography to just remain up there on the stage with them. But it didn’t. It was contagiously engaging, spilling off the stage and rolling down the aisles. Instead of “showing us” theatre, the Step Afrika performers “joined us” in theatre. At one point, members of the audience were even invited up on stage and were taught a stepping routine.
I wish I saw more shows where the performers “took care” of the audience. Of course, you could argue that it is much easier to take care of the audience when the performance constantly breaks the fourth wall, but I think that is a bit of an excuse. As an actor, you have at least three jobs: take care of yourself, take care of your fellow performers, and take care of the audience. And if stage productions were more conscious of that crucial third element of the theatre, I think the audience would notice, even if they couldn’t say why.
The crowning example of “taking care of the audience” from Step Afrika! was during the midst of a tap solo towards the end of the show. The performer, though I sadly do not know his name, was absolutely mesmerizing. I could not take my eyes off him. Admittedly, he was a phenomenal tap dancer, and his earlier work in the show had also been stand-out. But it wasn’t just the technical mastery of tap dancing that gave him such an appeal. It was the way he was completely sharing everything he was doing with the audience. This man had somehow mastered the tricky balance of performing alone on stage whilst performing in front of 600 people. That, for me at least, is one of the hardest challenges an actor needs to grasp. And he had it. He was smooth, made everything about his performance look effortless, and had such a charm, charisma, and stage presence about him that at a couple of points I thought I was watching Gregory Hines tap dancing in front of me.
And I’m convinced THAT is theatre at close to its best, because for a moment (however fleeting) I am convinced I am in a different place, at a different time, watching the lives of very different people than those who are performing on stage. I love when THAT happens.