Any performance — live or “recorded live on tape” — is nothing without tension. The live stage is filled with tension because of its unique requirement of being presented in live time while anything can happen.
On the live stage, a set can fall down. An actor can forget lines. A light can catch on fire.
That danger of the unknown is what makes a live performance much more meaningful than one you can stop and start and do over.
Once the lights go up on a live stage — the audience knows anything can happen and it is that innate tension that drove them into their seats in the first place.
Artificially maintaining that tension is a tough task and it falls upon Playwright, actor and direction to continue the tense uneasiness.
The most antiseptic way of maintaining tension is to pit conflicting wants and intentions against each other. If those wants and intentions are correctly mapped and executed, you naturally have a palpable opportunity for a constricting and effective tension
Finding other ways to create tension — through sounds, lighting effects, movement and music — will also help creep in the spectacle requirement while having tension mount in organic ways instead of surprise attacks.
Sometimes when I am in the audience of a play I can’t help but think how easily something could just go wrong. In high school, there was a performance of “Our Town” where one of the characters came down the stairs and delivered the line of dialogue from a scene that was about two scenes later and nobody did a double take or anything – they just pressed on from there. The loss came to the audience, of course, who lost out on those scenes that were basically skipped.
I was Mrs Beaver in my school performance of “the Lion the Which and the Wordrobe” I got sick mid show and ran off throwing up! That tested everyones improvisation 🙂
Ha! Now’s that an example of dramatic tension, Emily! Thanks for sharing!
That’s precisely it, Gordon! People attend live theatre for the surprise of the performance. You can never recreate a live event — it will always be different. Each time a performer is making the magic of the moment happen that will never happen the same way again.
Here’s a scene from a play about Helen Keller. The actress playing Helen falls off the stage! The scene continues. Magical, dangerous important, tense, wholly appropriate and revelatory in the shared recovery of the actors and audience: