The Athenian Players‘ production of Aristophanes’ The Frogs wrapped up Saturday night. I always feel a little sad at the end of a production, especially a short one. Yesterday was set strike, and seeing an empty stage where we worked hard for weeks, shared the creation of something unique, and helped each other grow a little bit more as actors, friends, and people always carries the weight and finality of an ending. Theatre is truly a transient art form. But then, of course, we start getting excited about the next production and all of its glowing possibilities and I remember that it’s only a transition to the beginning of something new. It still leaves me feeling rather nostalgic for a few days, though.
The cyclical nature of theatre also means that we learn new lessons and relearn old ones. This time was no different.
One of the most important lessons, I think, for any theatre company that works with pre-modern plays (we often perform Greek plays or the works of Shakespeare and his contemporaries) is that if you act like you know what you’re talking about, people will understand you. It’s always a worry when producing plays with archaic language that the audience will not be able to understand the dialog. And they won’t, frankly. Not all of it. But when the actors learn it well enough to understand what the characters are trying to say and how they are interacting with each other, the audience can fill in the gaps with the emotion and actions and have a pretty good idea of what’s happening. Language is changeable; emotions are eternal. I know that our audiences definitely understood enough to laugh along.
Which brings us to another lesson: physical humor defies the ages. Greek comedies and satyr plays contain crude humor and phallic puns, and, if we follow Shakespeare’s rule of “Suit the action to the word, the word to the action,” these plays can quickly become quite slapstick in nature. While many of the comical and sometimes sarcastic references to Greek generals, writers, and political figures that were rife in the play were largely lost on the audience, the physical humor taken directly from Aristophanes’ words drew immediate laughter. While I’m not much of a slapstick humor person, even I had to admit it was funny, and a welcome change from the darker dramas featured over the last two semesters (Macbeth and selected one-act plays by Eugene O’Neill and Susan Glaspell).
One of my favorite lessons, though, is that while we tend to think of ancient Greeks as stuffy, extremely proper people when it comes to writing and philosophy, much like Shakespeare and his friends and rivals they were still very much human and in many ways not very proper at all – as is evidenced in this horribly punny play full of fart and penis jokes. The crude jokes can help the audience view ancient peoples as what they were: people, complete with rich lives and diverse ideas of humor and entertainment. Even people whose lives are just about as far from us as we can imagine are so much more relatable when illuminated by the stage lights, and I love that aspect of theatre.
My final lesson from this play, I think (and maybe it’s the nostalgia talking), is a reminder of the beauty of the collaborative nature of theatre in general. As in all plays, but in this one more than in any we’ve done so far, cast and crew all made contributions to the blocking, the action, the set, and even some ad-libbing by some of the leads. Everyone worked hard and gave a part of themselves, and all of it came together into a cohesive whole that, combined with the work of the author and the translator, created something uniquely ours.
I’ll certainly be missing that feeling of cohesion and spending time with my stage family – but thankfully only for a few weeks!