Reaching New Heights: How The American Repertory Theatre is Changing the Theatre Experience

Bridget McCarthy ’17 / Emertainment Monthly Staff Writer

Jeremy Jordan and Laura Michelle Kelly in Finding Neverland. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.
Jeremy Jordan and Laura Michelle Kelly in Finding Neverland. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.
So it goes, people attend the theatre to see a story unfold. The audience is told the tale through elements of acting, dancing, singing, movement, and dialogue, traditionally with help from a set, costumes, and props. But what happens when shows stretch these elements and try to reach the audience in a new form?
The American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge is doing just that, using new, innovative ideas and alternative storytelling to captivate their audience.
An example of this is Finding Neverland directed by Diane Paulus, currently running at the American Repertory Theatre until September 28th. The show tells the story of playwright J.M. Barrie and the Llewelyn Davis family who inspired Peter Pan.
The musical is all about fantastical and whimsical storytelling and how to use your imagination to see more than what meets the eye. So it is only fitting that the story is told through the same magical lenses.
Daniel Wurtzel produced a fascinating work of stagecraft to explain a somber but beautiful moment toward the end of the play. Wurtzel uses an “air sculpture” to depict a heartbreaking death. But the sculpture adds so much magic to the moment, causing the audience to keep a smile on their face while crying simultaneously.
The cast of Finding Neverland. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.
The cast of Finding Neverland. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.
Wurtzel’s art shows the deceased character’s robe surrounded by glitter as it strategically makes a journey around the stage, providing a breathtaking experience. Through the storytelling of the sculpture, the audience is able to view the moment not as a death, but as a passage to Neverland.
Although very different from Finding Neverland, The Donkey Show is another performance at A.R.T. that uses a very distinct – and very different – form of storytelling. This show, (also directed by Diane Paulus,) uses an interactive disco theme to tell the story of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream. Through this non-traditional method, the audience is invited to participate in the performance instead of watching passively. The crowd of young people take part in the show which runs “every Saturday night”, as they dance with the minimally-dressed cast members and take part in the 70s party happening around them. The staging of the show makes for a communal event, and the crazy fluorescent lighting creates a club environment.
Telling a Shakespearean play through a disco club setting filled with drugs and drinking is not for the easily offended, but it sure is effective in attracting a younger crowd. By using this method of interactive, over-the-top storytelling, Shakespeare is made more appealing to an audience of a young generation. Even though it’s outrageous, it works.
The A.R.T. isn’t afraid to do a lot of outrageous things, as shown in Pippin, also directed by Diane Paulus. The Tony-award winning show, (which is now on Broadway at the Music Box Theatre), uses circus material to explain the musical. Traditionally, the original musical is told without a circus element. However, this innovative idea for the revival works well with the story to create a fantastical element.
The circus aspect shows the audience how Pippin wishes to be something spectacular, and that anything ordinary is not an option. At the end of the show, the Leading Player along with the entire circus becomes very dark, and they allude to being a metaphor for depression and suicide. They convince Pippin he should continue with “the grand finale,” (suicide) as opposed to living a life that is anything less than extraordinary.
The cast of Finding Neverland. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.
The cast of Finding Neverland. Photo Credit: Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.
Since the story is told through acrobatics and tricks, the sharp cut to something so dark is gripping. It highlights the contrast between what Pippin thinks he wants and how he really feels. Without the circus element of storytelling, the separatism between the two would not be as apparent.
Acrobatics, disco dancing, and sculptures formed by air are just some of the ways A.R.T. tells the stories of the stage in new and unconventional ways. This begs the question: what will they do next?
The excitement behind the query, “what will American Rep do next?” also brings up another question: what will happen to the tales of traditional theatre? With all this contemporary storytelling, will the old song and dance musical number remain impressive?
The answer is yes. There will always be a great deal of respect for traditional forms of theatre; no one said dancing and singing was easy. However, traditional ways will continue to be mixed with the contemporary, like in Finding Neverland. And just like Pippin, revivals always open up new doors for alternative storytelling.
So as A.R.T. comes up with their latest idea, theatre goers will anxiously await the new twists to be put on old favorites.
I mean, who wouldn’t love to see a revival of The Music Man with acrobatics?

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