The Paratheatrical- an introduction
One of my favourite parts of working in theatre is the routine that is involved in going to see a play. There are so many steps involved on the night that are an absolute pleasure to go through.
I rarely see plays alone, so usually I get to go with my friends or my partner or my family. I usually see shows at night, so we'll often go out for dinner beforehand. We can chat about the play, what we're excited about, who is going to be in it. Once I get to the venue, I like to get a drink or snack for the show. My favourite place to perform this part of the ritual is at the Workshop Theatre in Wollongong, where they serve cups of tea for evening shows- it's incredible. Finally, with provisions in hand and surrounded by my favourite people, we collect our tickets and take our seats. I keep a lot of the tickets I get as a little memento. Seated and ready, I love the sounds of those last few moments of conversation being shushed away as the house lights dim, and the magic begins. And, after it's all over, my companions and I often talk at length about what we've just watched; analysing, reviewing, laughing at, fondly remembering.
I love all the rituals of seeing theatre, but some theatre makers have found creative ways to extend the presence of their work in the lives of their audience members. Some plays start well before the lights go down, and some finish well after the theatre closes for the night. This week, let us reflect on that precious space before and after a show where a different kind of magic can take place- the paratheatrical.
The paratheatrical is a fairly simple concept, referring to all of the audience spaces that exist beyond the stage of a theatre. Space here can mean the literal spaces, like the exterior of the theatre or the foyer, but can also refer the the cultural space a show resides in. This might mean the online space a work exists in, or the festival context, or just the conversations between patrons over dinner an hour before the show. It's not exactly the same as breaking the fourth wall, although it can be. Paratheatricality can manifest as audience interaction, theatre design, or as marketing material. However a show exists beyond the stage, to exploit the paratheatrical is to engineer these experiences. It is to consider the paratheatrical as a vital and intentional aspect of a work, and to treat the broader audience experience with the same dramaturgical seriousness as the lines spoken onstage. I first encountered the concept when I started studying horror theatre, and the original masters of horror- the Grand-Guignol. This theatre company pioneered many aspects of the audience experience, including the development and use of special effects (which will need an entirely different blog post to cover); but one of their most striking efforts demonstrates an understanding of how an audience can interact with a work beyond the scope of the script. Let me take you through the process of seeing a show at the Grand-Guignol Theatre on a lovely summer's eve in the early 20th century...
You've heard of the Grand-Guignol Theatre. You've seen their disturbing posters decorating the exterior of the building and the streets of Paris. You know that what you'll see on their stage will be unlike anything you've ever seen before...
The Man Who Killed Death...
You arrive, with your theatre companions, at the end of a tiny laneway in Montmartre, Paris. It's a strange place, full of contradictions. Just a few minutes walk from the Moulin-Rouge, this part of the city is alive with art and rebellion. But it is also steeped in poverty.
It's industrialisation that has led to Montmartre becoming, in the words of researcher Julian Brigstocke, "...widely considered an unhealthy milieu in which natural life had become dangerously excessive or perverted (2011, pg. 220)." You might already feel a little uneasy about walking down this particular laneway in this disreputable part of town. You will definitely feel something when you see your destination, nestle amongst the buildings at the very end of the street...
You approach, and as you enter, you'll immediately notice the smell. The space is filled with the aroma of wax and incense from the years of candles that have been burnt here. It smells like an old church- or, as one frequent audience member once claimed, as if you are "...plunging into a tomb (Hand and Wilson, 2002, pg. 30)." Then you might notice something else about the crowded foyer...
It is an old church.
As you push through the crowd towards the auditorium, the cause of the blockage is becoming clearer. The crowd is gathered around two figures standing near the door. A doctor and his nurse are standing in the way. They're talking to patrons, asking about their health, taking pulses. You get close enough to hear them. The show tonight is so shocking that those with weak constitutions shouldn't go in! Ladies will faint! Gentlemen will lose their dinners! It's medically dangerous to watch tonight's performance!
You know they're actors. Well, you think they are...
You take your seat inside. The theatre is tiny. It only seats a few hundred patrons. In the auditorium, the religious past of the theatre is more apparent. There are religious murals on the walls, and two large angel statues staring down on the audience from the rafters. You turn around, and see the private booths at the back of the space...
Grilles, like a confessional! The smell of the tomb is apparent here, too. You look back to the curtain on the stage. You can almost feel the eyes of those angels staring at you. The lights are extinguished. The crowd gets quieter. And a night of theatre at the Grand-Guignol begins...
The Grand-Guignol really knew how to set the mood for their plays. The theatre produced horror and suspense plays, and a night at the theatre would consist of several 20-minute plays. The evening was usually capped off with a farcical sex comedy as something of a palate cleanser. The plays were sexually explicit, gory, terrifying or at least taboo. The theatre itself reflects this atmosphere with its location and religious architecture. But, to add to this, the theatre went to great lengths to amplify this audience discomfort. The hiring of doctors to attend to patrons is not believed to have been medically necessary (although, patrons did faint on occasion); instead, these characters were more likely employed to make audiences nervous before entering the theatre.
My favourite modern example of a horror play employing paratheatricality as part of its audience experience came as I was researching Stephen Mallatratt's 1987 play The Woman In Black, adapted from Susan Hill's novella of the same name. The plot follows lawyer Arthur Kipps as he attempts to stage a monologue designed to exorcise the demons of his past. He believes that speaking of his horrifying experiences at Eel Marsh House, where he encountered a ghostly and powerful entity known as the Woman in Black, will stop her from wreaking further havoc on innocent lives. This, of course, has the opposite effect, as the ghost appears in the theatre and instead wreaks havoc on the audience instead. I've read many reviews of the Fortune Theatre's production, which has been running at the theatre since 1989 and is the second-longest running show in West End history. One in particular, written by Alex Needham, offers an interesting behind-the-scenes glimpse at how the show operates. Of the titular Woman in Black, Needham writes-
'There are no lines, and dance experience is preferred. "You almost want them to float," says [company manager Jon] Huyton. "We've just had someone performing it for nine months and she said at the end, 'I will come back, but I've got to do some speaking for a while.'" Referred to as "the vision" by cast and crew, the woman is on stage for mere minutes yet manages to cause mayhem throughout the auditorium.'
Later in my research I ended up on the Fortune Theatre's website, and found that there was no credit listed for the Woman in Black. There are three characters in the play- Arthur Kipps, the Actor who helps him put on his show, and the Woman in Black. And there were four credits- two male actors and their understudies.
In that moment, you can imagine the weird feeling that came over me. Obviously this was intentional, a little trick the marketing manager at the Fortune Theatre was pulling on me by pretending there is no actor who plays the Woman in Black. But even knowing that, you can't help by think, even for a millisecond, that maybe...
Maybe the Woman in Black is an actual ghost, and seeing the play will be a genuinely haunting experience.
Here, the theatre makers are subtly exploiting the online space in which the work exists. It's no accident that the actress playing the ghost is left out of the cast list. And even if it hadn't have been a tiny moment of fear, this move can at least keep a website visitor engaged for longer than they normally would. Because, after I failed to find the Woman in Black in the cast list, I went looking around in the crew and found a credit for "Vision Productions". Clicking through, I found the credit for an actress.
There are many, many more examples of paratheatricality all across theatre, today and in the past. Every audience engages in it in some way. If you've seen a play where cast members have interacted with you in the foyer, or walked down the aisle in the auditorium, then you've seen it. If you've watched trailers online, or bought tickets after seeing an interesting poster plastered on a train station wall, you've interacted with it. If you've read reviews, or bought programmes, or even just thought about what you should wear to the theatre, you are letting the theatre makers influence your experience outside the bounds of a production. The paratheatrical is a matter of recognising the cultural and practical aspects of an audience's experience, and recognising the inherent power theatre makers have over these spaces.
Perhaps it is the quarantine that has made me reflect on the theatrical rituals I miss so much. The dinners and conversations are half the fun of theatre. And if, God forbid, the play is bad, maybe it's all of the fun. The paratheatrical is as versatile and exciting as the theatrical- I hope, when all this is over and the theatres come roaring back to life, we won't take it for granted.
Have you ever been caught off-guard by the paratheatrical? Please share your experiences in the comments!
Hand, RJ & Wilson, M 2002, Grand-Guignol: The French theatre of horror, University of Exeter Press, Devon.
Hand, RJ & Wilson, M 2000, ‘The Grand-Guignol: aspects of theory and practice’, Theatre Research International, vol. 25, no. 3, pp. 266-275.
Needham, A 2014, ‘The Woman In Black's reign of terror’, The Guardian, 29 October, viewed 23 August, <https://www.theguardian.com/stage/2012/oct/28/woman-in-black-25th-anniversary>.
PW Productions, Cast, The Woman In Black, viewed 23 August 2019, <https://www.thewomaninblack.com/cast>.
Brigstocke, J 2011, ‘Defiant laughter: humour and the aesthetics of place in late 19th century Montmartre’, Cultural Geographies, vol. 19, no. 2, pp. 217–235.
Deák, F 1974, “Théâtre du Grand Guignol”, The Drama Review, vol. 18, no. 1, pp. 34-43.
Theatres Online Worldwide 2019, Review: The Woman in Black, Theatres Online, viewed 3 May 2020, <https://www.theatresonline.com/blog/review-the-woman-in-black>.
Cosgrove, B 2014, ‘Madness, Torture and Murder on a Paris Stage: That's Entertainment!’, TIME Magazine, 14 October, viewed 11 August, <https://time.com/3881193/grand-guignol-photos-madness-torture-murder-on-paris-stage/>.