Earpieces on Broadway - Feeding the lines
The new Broadway season is off to a flying start. Attendance is up, grosses are growing and theatres continue to be full. Great news for everyone. The more cynical amongst us would look at the current crop of (mainly) plays that rely on the star quality of certain actors to shift tickets. Not every show can be Hamilton - it's a tale as old as time, stick in a celebrity and the audiences will come.
I was shocked, although not surprised to read Michael Riedel's latest column which dished the dirt on the stars currently appearing on Broadway that are relying on technological advances to support their performances. No, we haven't yet got to the stage of robot chorus girls, instead I'm talking about ear pieces. Ear pieces actors wear that allow them to be fed the lines. You heard me, actors are being fed lines during live performances.
Are we shocked? Should we be clutching our pearls? When Dame Angela Lansbury starred in Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud last year (winning an Olivier Award along the way no less), it was pretty much common knowledge that her Princess Leia inspired wig was designed to hide an earpiece that was feeding her the lines. Did it matter during the live performance? Not really. Is it 'fair' for other actors? Debatable. Whilst personally, I'd have expected her to remember the whole of "Simple" from Anyone Can Whistle and still knock it out of the park, the aids must have added comfort to the cast, crew and Lansbury herself, that should something go wrong, it would be able to be resolved with minimum disruption to the audience. So surely that's a good thing?
Dame Angela is 90 years old. At 27 I sometimes forget what day it is or where I've put my keys. I'd struggle to learn a full play and perform it eight times a week at my age - I am in awe at the fact she manages to get out of bed of a morning and doesn't stay in her dressing gown until the clock strikes single digits. Instead, she cranked out eight performances a week, and also shows no signs of slowing down.
As the technology becomes more advanced and earpieces can be easily hidden my worry is that they'll soon become par for the cause. Reidel's post suggests that two of Hollywood's biggest names Bruce Willis, who is currently starring in 'Misery' and Al Pacino who is starring in Mamet's newest play 'China Doll' are both relying on prompts onstage. In Pacino's case, the set itself has in-built teleprompters and a computer screen that shows his lines. Mamet is hard - there's no two ways about it - and during previews of new plays things often change over night. With Producers constantly thinking of ways to entice the 'LA set' over to the East Coast with promises of Tony Awards and huge paychecks - the worry is that soon all effort will be taken out of the performing, and ear pieces will become part of a star's rider. You can practically hear the conversation: "You want me to do a play in New York? Sure, I'll do a week of rehearsal and have someone feed me the lines...Uncle Vanya can wear earmuffs right?"
True - there's something wonderful about seeing such big names live on stage, but if it gets to the point where it's too much effort for them to perform, then I'm not quite sure it's worth either the time or the money. Any actor worth their salt will tell you, learning the lines is mechanical and laborious - but it's the JOB and part of the performance. If we take away that element we may as well employ robots or talking parrots. I'd happily give them the same speech I deliver on a regular basis to the checkout girl at Sainsbury's - I do NOT want self service, and if you don't stop forcing us to use them soon you'll be out of a job and have no unexpected items in your bagging area to feed yourself with.
Learning lines is part of building and developing a character, and is the commitment to taking on a stage role. In Hollywood or TV where scenes are filmed with multiple takes, actors are required to learn small chunks of text at a time - and we're all aware that it's a 'false' kind of acting.
If the technology allows actors to extend their stage life, is that a good thing? Cicely Tyson and James Earl-Jones are reportedly wearing ear pieces in The Gin Game, following on from Tyson wearing one for her Tony winning performance a few seasons back in 'The Trip to Bountiful'. I'd much rather see actors of a certain age given that support and safety net which allows them to perform and inhabit a character than mentally check for lines. We all remember Jones and Redgrave's turn in 'Much Ado About Nothing' at the Old Vic two years ago which had you on the edge of your seat wondering if a scene will ever progress.
The human mind is a weird and wonderful thing. I'm fully aware it's not directly related to age - many other factors come into play, and actors of all ages can have trouble learning lines. What I object to, and worry about, is how accessible this technology has become, and the future abuse of it. Acting is a craft, and learning lines is part of that craft. Audiences have paid for, and expect a live performance - and that must be protected at all costs.
On the flip side, the opportunities for sabotage and errors are almost too broad to comprehend. The line-reader will have one of the most important jobs on Broadway - piss them off, you better watch your mouth...A modern day Alan Ayckbourn is surely beavering away on a modern day farce showing a Noises Off style drama where someone's ear piece is being fed the wrong lines. It practically write itself.