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Engaging the Audience's Imagination in a Limited Setting

Updated: Feb 1

Many people have certain images in mind when they think of theater. They probably imagine a stage, lighting, sets, costumes, and a whole plethora of tools and resources that can help make a script come to life. But the fact of the matter is that theater is just another medium of storytelling in which live actors perform before a live audience. They can do that with a stage, special lighting, magnificent sets and costumes and the like, but it can also be done, and often must be done in a more limited setting. While The Logos Theatre is very blessed with a stage and all the accouterments of a professional theater, we have also had the privilege to work in school gyms, church stages, corners of fellowship halls, and built-up stages on outdoor basketball courts. We know what it is to work in a limited setting to bring a story to life, and we also know that the resources are often not viewed as a necessity, but a luxury for most of the people who are working in the trenches of theater education. Especially with competition season upon us, where there are often times actual limitations and parameters given for how you are allowed to produce a script, we want to give some practical tips on how to keep the audience completely engaged in your story, even when you can’t give them complete immersion in the world of the story through sets and lighting and soundtrack. So, if you have ever wondered how you can delight your audience with a table and two chairs, this is the blog for you!

1. Clarity on Every Level of Communication

Obviously, you want your actors to speak clearly and understandably. But when we talk about clarity, we mean much more than just the lines that are written in the script, because anything that confuses your audience is going to lose your audience. If you are already in a situation where your audience has to really engage their imagination to enter the world of the story, being unclear in your body language, in your speech, or in your tonal communication is going to make things much more difficult for your audience. In considering body language, if your actors are clearly and consistently portraying the emotions of their characters, whether it be excitement, anger, confusion, or any other emotion, it is a huge help to the audience in following the story. It’s the same with your tonal communication. Consider the following two statements: “You saw the yellow elephant.” and “You saw the yellow elephant?” There was most likely a melodic difference in how you heard those two lines in your head. The power of tone and melody to communicate thought and emotion goes far beyond just that simple difference between a statement and a question. The sets may not be able to clue your audience into the world of the story, but your actors’ melodies can be just as effective at capturing their attention and igniting their imagination. Confusing body language (or lack of body language) and flat and boring melodies will quickly lose the audience’s attention–but when your performers are fully engaged in communicating through their body language and the nuanced melodies they can use as they deliver their lines, it gives the audience the tools they need to stay fully engaged!

2. Utilizing the Resources You Have

You may feel like you don’t have many resources as you are putting together a piece for competition or a production with your students. But regardless of what you feel you don’t have, if you take full advantage of what you do have, and maximize your strengths, you can create something that is exciting and captivating for your audience. Let’s suppose you are at a competition and you are limited to a table and two chairs and whatever hand props your actors can carry on with them. If your sets can’t build the world for you, how about using creative costuming to give the audience something tangible to look at and engage with as you are telling the story? But your resources go beyond the physical. Take a look at your performers and start to think about their individual strengths. You may not be able or allowed to have any soundtrack or underscoring in your production, but do your students have any musical ability? If you can creatively find ways to incorporate that budding guitarist, violinist, or saxophone player into your drama, you will not only surprise and delight your audience, you will have fully utilized the strengths of your students in an incredibly meaningful way. In the theater world, it is very easy to think of the things we don’t have. But if your focus instead turns toward creatively using the things you do have, you can open up a whole new world for your students and your audience!

Women in a Nazi Prison Camp

3. Creativity within Simplicity

There is nothing like a surprise to capture your attention. Finding creative and surprising ways to use ordinary objects has long been a technique in theater. In Thornton Wilder’s Our Town for example, the sets are very limited. Kitchen tables and chairs make up the family homes where the main scenes take place and then in a very creative moment, two ladders are set up. They aren’t really ladders though. They instead serve as the second story windows that the two main characters use in the evenings to do their homework, talk to one another, and bring the audience into a world that is different from their own and yet very familiar. In one of our own scripts, The Ballerina of Auschwitz, a ladder is used in several different ways over the course of the story. First, it is a wall the character climbs over, then it is an integral part of the pieces that make up the prison camp of Auschwitz. (A full video of this piece along with a Director’s Commentary is available on the Director’s Guild!) Simple doesn’t have to mean boring, but does mean you have to be creative. Another example of this is in our competition cutting of Peter and the Starcatchers, in this scene, a ship scene comes to life with nothing more than a rope held taut between two actors. It becomes the ship’s railing as the two actors and anyone else on stage sways gently with the waves. It’s challenging: every performer in the scene must stay in time with each other. But its simplicity and clarity becomes pretty magical for the audience.

4. Utilizing all of Your Actor’s Abilities

Although we touched on this earlier, there are some more specific ways you can use your actors. While not everyone may have a particular skill like playing an instrument, or dance, there is something powerful that happens when you start to use your actors as an ensemble. This can be done in many different ways. Whether it be by incorporating elements of choric speaking into your piece, or letting your sound effects be provided by your performers vocally or by a creative use of props, letting your cast come together and create an environment for the audience can be incredibly effective. Special effects like slow motion movement can also be achieved with some careful timing and group choreography. With creative techniques like this, we suggest using a general rule of thumb our founder, Dr. Nicky Chavers, followed in his scripts and productions: a good idea can only be used twice before it becomes boring to the audience. Think of these ideas as tools you have in your arsenal, but you definitely don’t want the tool to become worn out by overuse!

Our founder, Dr. Chavers would often say, “Obstacles come with the job.” There will always be an obstacle or a limitation, but when we take those obstacles and turn them into opportunities, you will find there is a great deal of creativity that can be found in the most unexpected places. As you go forward with your projects this coming year, whether it be preparing a piece for competition, or producing a show in less than ideal spaces, or costuming a show on a very low budget (more on that in the coming weeks!), we know that obstacles can be the gateway into some very creative problem solving!

If you want take a look at more resources and ideas that can inspire you, make sure to check out our Director's Guild! How-to videos are posted weekly, and our team is always ready to answer questions and lend our expertise to your specific situation!

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