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“Applause:” the primary expression of approval

Alison R. Mouratis's picture

When I first auditioned for Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, I had no idea what to expect. From what I had read, the play seemed a little strange, and from what I had heard about the theater department, Mark Lord was going to do something completely crazy with it. But I’m always up for a challenge, and once I got into the cast, I committed myself one hundred percent to the work. But something just wasn’t clicking. I didn’t quite understand my role and I definitely didn’t understand the play. Time progressed, but even still, I just didn’t seem to be in the right frame of mind for the work we were doing. But then one day, Mark said something to us, and for the first time I felt like I knew what the play needed of me, and what I could expect of it. He said, “ This show is different. Every single one of you could be doing what you need to be doing, but unless we are all in this together, it will simply never work. We need to be in the zone, we need to be focused, but we also need to interact and have fun with this piece. We’re here to give it life.” And that’s when I realized that I was being selfish with my work…and so was everyone else. It simply was never going to work unless all twenty- two of us in the cast formed an ensemble. From that day on, my own personal work, as well as the work of the rest of the ensemble, finally began to grow to a deeper level of concentration and commitment.

But I was soon reminded that it was not just me who was being affected by the play. Until the very final moments of rehearsal, I had completely forgotten that we were going to present this to an audience. While we posted flyers inviting members of the community to come to our show, Mark reminded us that it was not only about the final performance, and that the audience’s response wasn’t a representation of the work we had done. I remember standing there listening to him saying this and wondering what he meant by it exactly. Wasn’t everything building up to these final moments? Didn’t we put on a performance in hopes to be congratulated by our peers? With these thoughts in mind, you can imagine my surprise after hearing my friend’s reactions after the show. “It was…interesting,” they said, or, “I thought the lights gave it a really cool vibe.” This made me wonder: what if this just had been a cold reading of the show, without the set and without the lighting. Would it have moved anyone?

I knew that for this final paper and to clarify some questions for myself, I needed to talk to the man himself, Mr. Mark Lord. After many failed attempts at emailing, we finally set a time to talk on the phone. “Thanks for being willing to accommodate my crazy Mr. Mom schedule,” he said. And so we began:

Do you ever think about Bryn Mawr theater as a culture?

I don’t think, really, about what the definition of a culture is. Do I think about the way that people and ideas get along, that Bryn Mawr and Haverford get along, how current and past students get along? Yeah, I do. And I spend a lot of time thinking about the two overlapping sets of communities that sometimes manage to come together and the work that we accomplish when we do that.

In class we read a text that stated that every community must have some abling and disabling qualities. What is disabling, then, about the theater culture? Wait, perhaps disability is too harsh of a word. What are some of the risks and costs that you take when you direct a show?

When I think about the word ‘enabling’ in relationship to theater, I think foremost of the enabling aspect of performances. That’s how the group of us enables the play to live. That’s a primary enablement and we hope that we have some sort of social outcome when people come to see it. There are people who come from the Philly theater community all the time. We enable those people to experience our work, the space, the text. The theater culture itself can be very enabling to those who are inside of it—it’s a way to improve the work you do, to discover different things, both about the work and about themselves, and I’m sure that it can enable some people to feel included in a group. Some people inevitably, then, feel not included. Or not significantly valued. Or commit themselves to rehearsal 35 hours a week but maybe feel under appreciated. Or they get the role of the guard as opposed to the role of Hamlet. But the flip side of that, again, is the idea that so many people are connected. Some people, who aren’t actually in the show, are enabled through connections. “Oh, my roommate’s in that show so I’ll go support them.” “Oh, I heard this might be kind of interesting, I think I’ll go support my classmates.” It’s a really valuable experience for many people.

The disabling side plays a lot into theater too, though. It takes a whole bunch of time and if you chose to be a part of the theater culture then it might cost your GPA. It might cost you your ability to write for the newspaper or be a good boyfriend or girlfriend or daughter. There are a lot sacrifices that people make. The flip side of that, though, is that there are people who join theater in order to be a good boyfriend or girlfriend or son or daughter.

How does the Bryn Mawr theater culture compare to other theater cultures, like, say, Broadway or even Yale theater (where I know you studied)?

One of the things that is unique and that I love about Bryn Mawr is that it is totally not professional. When I was at Yale, everybody was on the assembly line to greatness. Some people were on their way to greatness as a TV star or as a movie actor. Some as a professor at a small liberal arts college. At Yale, people were totally focused on nurturing the most professional relationships available. At Bryn Mawr, people are all on an assembly line to greatness too, but not everyone wants to go into theater. One thing that I really like about our community is that it is very diverse; some people want to do theater but are majoring in math. Or some people are studying anthropology but want to give theater a shot. And that’s why the shows are so diverse in so many ways. With so many different interests, you get to hear the contrasting ways of looking at the play, or looking at the work. Everybody brings a valuable perspective.

Does any particular directing experience stand out in your mind?

Yes, actually. I was co-directing a show with another guy in Philly and we got along pretty well, I would say. But one day, we had a big disagreement that I think relates very well to this interview.

The play we were directing called for the use of a box in one scene. I envisioned the box to be small and wooden, something like a box that fine silverware would come in. The guy looked at me and said, “But it’ll take two hours to go out and find that. Why don’t we just throw some plywood together and paint it brown. The audience will never know the difference.” And I said, “ Yes, but I will know the difference. And the actors, who are in that special moment in the scene, will know the difference.” Why would we ever do something just to please the audience? On a commercial level, yes, you do need to appeal to a lot of people. And that’s why I love Bryn Mawr—because we don’t have to do that. I’m not against pleasing the audience, but that’s not the ultimate goal. Step one: as an artist, make something that you are proud of. Step two: share it with the audience. If they like it, fine. If they don’t, fine

Your work needs to be meaningful to you—otherwise it can’t begin to be beneficial to the audience. I strive always to do theater honestly. That is the ultimate goal.

I interviewed some of my friends and classmates who came to see the show. Overall a lot of people said they liked it but had no idea what was going on. Is this disheartening to you?

My vision really varies from project to project. If I chose to Gertrude Stein play and people say, “I don’t get it,” then I’m not surprised. But for, say, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, then I think people do get it. If felt like I lived in a universe that no one else understood all the time, then yes, that would be disheartening. But I don’t know if I would stop. I don’t make theater in order to be congratulated by the audience. And I do think a lot of actors and directors do that. The kind of relationships that I want to have with actors and designers are deeper than just “congratulations.” The way that a lot of theatrical cultures work is that people get approval from each other. If I needed the approval of the audience in order to feel good about myself and my work, then I would always feel awful. The actors and I, we explore ideas together. When the audience comes to see the show, they come to see a thing that is hypothetically very important to us. Sometimes it puzzles the audience. Mostly that’s really ok with me. When I watch Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights, I’m seeing it the same as any audience member and it puzzles me too. But I think I like being puzzled more than most people do. At Bryn Mawr, people mostly thrive on the ability to know something solid and to know what it all means, so they don’t get very much from the show. I’m happy to be puzzled. For example; the character of Death. I don’t know what that means. I don’t know why I put her in. But I love watching how that affects Aditi [who played Faust] as an actor and how that affects Faust as a character, so I don’t have doubts about what I’ve created. It’s a little disheartening to hear people say “I don’t get that.” But I do try to create a balance. It is a part of my job as far as managing the theater culture—if we’re going to do a Gertrude Stein play, then I’ll do A Midsummer Night’s Dream before it. I think it is very important to expose people to a broad range of experiences, Gertrude Stein included.


I thanked him for taking the time to talk with me and hung up the phone. But the last question he had answered still resonated with me: “I don’t make theater in order to be congratulated by the audience…The kind of relationships that I want to have with actors and designers are deeper than just ‘congratulations.’” And suddenly I realized. So many people, actors and directors, do work for such selfish reasons. Why do we always feel the need to be applauded? “Clap your hands or Tinkerbell will die,” commands Peter Pan. If Tink doesn’t hear the applause that indicates her level of importance, she dies. What does that say about our society? The need for approval comes from a deeply rooted belief of not being worthy. Mark, however, seems to have reached a sort of enlightened state about his work: you have to do it so that you are proud of it. If other people aren’t as excited about it or don’t react the same way you did, as long as you are certain of it, nothing else matters. I feel like this theory not only applies to theater, but to the classroom as well. It’s just like that story that Anne tells us about getting a ‘B’ on a paper she felt very confident about, and an ‘A’ on a paper that she felt was less good. I think as long as you are confident in your work and can support your reasoning, it doesn’t matter what everyone else thinks. If you can grow and think and learn from your writing, than you can give yourself an internal applause, because if you can believe in yourself and your capabilities, than you never have to be disheartened.