Looking at the program filled with photographs of hand-written bios, you might not know what to expect from “Hold, Please,” one of the academic year’s last Theater Studies performances. The show feels like an experiment in performance art within a theatrical context. The crucial aim is to illuminate the mysterious world of the “theater backstage,” yet the piece itself is theatrical, making the whole experience rather meta.
Because there is no narrative or fictional characters to the whole piece, the appeal of the performance may be limited to those who are interested in theater as a form or art rather than regular entertainment. The whole performance is framed within an imaginary rehearsal for a play, where all the ensemble members play the parts of the production staff for this imaginary show. Within this framework there are two main types of segments: the design-intensive “performance” pieces and the “layovers” where the ensemble members act their parts the way they normally would during any rehearsal.
The “performance” segments push the limits of what one can do with light and sound, at least within the black box interior of the Whitney Theater. The ensemble members’ interactions with the light and sound around them produce beautiful pieces, each a short story on its own. The “layover” segments take care of stitching these short performances together, and thus they are necessary. These parts are also important to get the message of the show across rather than just pleasing the senses of the audience. However, throughout the performance much of the commentary and jokes about the struggles of tech week and the woes of being a producer feel like they wouldn’t be as relatable for an audience which isn’t a part of the theater scene at all. This gives the whole framework an esoteric feel, which can go both ways: it can be intriguing to peek in and get the honest reality of a theater backstage, or it can alienate an audience member who is unwilling to put in the effort to try to understand the tech-week lingo.
Although the show exists within this rehearsal framework, it is made clear from the start that the “design” elements dictate the direction of the show, rather than having a preplanned storyline. It is also important to recognise that for once the strength of the piece does not lie in how well it is able to hide the technical reality, but rather how elegantly it can showcase the work and the truth behind the “magic of theater.” One particular innovation that allows this to happen is the use of real-time cameras throughout the piece.
An ensemble member is in charge of walking around the stage and filming the action while two projectors above the stage project the video from her phone onto the walls in real time. This was one of the best design ideas I have seen used in a performance at Yale. It makes it possible to watch the same performance from many angles at once. There is the intimate sense of sitting around the stage, at the same level as the performers, only an arm’s length away. There is also the sense of being in the movies, where the action is happening on the screen — perfectly framed and far away. It is in your hands to choose which way to look, and thus also to choose your mode of engagement with the performance.
Speaking of engagement, another strong suit of the piece was its engagement with the audience. This was done by means of employing the audience as screen-holders for the simulation of a starry night, or temporary ensemble-members to play a partnered game on stage. These attempts didn’t feel gimmicky or as if the show was going out of its way to become interactive. They felt necessary and honest: There really weren’t enough people to hold the screen, so they asked someone else to do it. And with this help, we were able to experience a beautiful shadow play behind the illuminated screen of the night sky.
“Hold, Please” did a very good job showcasing the abilities of design, with a heavy focus on light and sound. In these departments, they attempted things that a traditional, scripted show might not be able to incorporate into its concept. Seeing their body of work, I was left wanting to know and see the capabilities of other departments within a production team.
The set department was not really touched on as much, which is understandable considering that set-construction is very time consuming and hard to modify on stage the way light and sound are. Still, there was a clear setting of the piece: Four desks, each for a different ensemble member, covered in notes, snacks and newspaper puzzles to pass time. Even with the limited furniture, the image at the end with four illuminated desks on each corner stuck with me. Another department that didn’t explore as deeply was costumes & make up. Only in the end, when the ensemble members were acting out a rehearsal scene of a Wild West parody, were costumes used. However, even then they weren’t constructed to be pleasing to the senses the way sound and light had been. It would’ve been very exciting to see some examples of avant-garde costume design, a vision of the potential of what one can do with clothing when freed from a script and the vision of a director. A brief glimpse into this possibility appeared in one of the earlier segments. One ensemble member entered the stage wrapped in fairy lights over black leggings and a black tank top. It was a blending of design elements, and one of the most touching images of the whole piece.
“Hold, Please” is proof that design can be beautiful, sharp and elegant — but the beauty of it comes from real people, operators behind us in the light booths and stage managers continuously whispering cues into a headset. I left the Whitney Theater reminded that while knowing the tricks behind the “magic” can be disorienting at first, in the end the experience of watching theater is much more valuable once you recognise that someone is pressing just the right buttons behind you to keep it all going.
Contact Eren Kafadar at firstname.lastname@example.org .