Small productions, such as ion theatre company’s Jesus Hates Me (directed by Glenn Paris and Claudio Raygoza), lack big budgets, so actors double as techies. During scene changes, they might be mere feet from the audience, with nothing but the inky blackness of an unlit theater disguising their sudden break in character.
Directors and critics fear that modern audiences, suffering from 21st-century attention spans, will disengage from a story if forced to sit through more than a few seconds of inter-scene blackout. The collected wisdom of theater’s elite concludes that obvious scene changes constitute a bad thing. Theater, it holds, should emulate the imperceptible cuts of cinema whenever possible. One theater critic at The Guardian labels scene changes, “the traffic jams of theatre.”
This argument denigrates theatergoers, who compose perhaps the last bastion of arts fans willing to actively engage a production. If they weren’t, they’d be at the movies.
Audiences will stay with a play because they care about characters like Ethan (Connor Sullivan), the former high-school football star who could’ve been something; and who, in his Nietzsche-fueled, folksy redneck insight, lives in a world of such personal darkness that “even a blind man can see it’s all about the hurt.”
How do you save a guy like Ethan from himself?
Obviously, not with Jesus.
No. You build him up and break him down. Good for him if he comes out the other side a better, stronger person. For an audience member, following that story isn’t just a passive process of watching and absorbing. It requires engagement; and never more so than when the lights go out and the cast scurries around in the darkness changing scene.
What happened? What’s going on? What happens next?
Those scene changes force an audience to grapple with the work and forcibly extract meaning from the story. Scott McCloud, in Making Comics, used the term “closure” to describe how readers understand a story by stitching together separate, unrelated panels of art. The same thing happens onstage. The naysayers are half right. A scene change pulls viewers out of the story, but it takes them to a magical, omniscient state where everything seen must be decoded and made to mean something more than a jumbled series of images. Like musical rests, the breaks in the action are anything but nothing.
Jesus Hates Me runs through May 14.