Last night I was at the theatre watching stories unfold. OK, so I was actually watching a pantomime, but there were stories there. The actual show was predictable enough, of course, but this story is not the one I found myself focusing on. I’ve always suspected that there are stories everywhere, in the smallest of places. They can pass you by, like neutrinos, if — momentarily — you take your eye off the possibility of them taking place.
So, in between the outrageous over-acting and necessarily exaggerated body postures, whole stories began to play themselves out. The actors were really close to us in the small auditorium, on the narrow stage as they were, and I imagined Vaudeville scenes. I started thinking of the audience and other plays unfolding inside my head.
In the wings, just out of view, I thought of how the backstage crew were readying the next scene’s props; how the actors swung off-stage with painted smiles or evil frowns, and how those expressions might be changing in their flouncing just beyond the stage lights. I thought of costume changes and twisted fabrics, frustrated dressers, and lost props and minor panics.
The actors on-stage contorted their bodies and stood in unnatural positions. I thought of the director and his or her agitations, and of their cajoling, lecturing and dismay at the actors’ inabilities at understanding how to stand, or stand this way, or stand here, or say this like that and with this fling of the hand.
When the audience heckled and the actors lost their place in the script, ad-libbing furiously till they found their way back — as if by following along a string of thoughts — I thought of those actors as characters themselves: aspiring or delusional, board-weary, angry, secretly self-loathing.
The set painters had their stories, so too did the stage-hands and the make-up artists and the light rig crew. Every ‘flat’ created as backdrop had its story; every end-of-season-weary prop; every tiny mistimed curtain drop or blackout of lights before the actor had fully delivered their line, or their exaggerated face-pull, or wiggle of a backside in a ridiculously over-sized skirt. I imagined scoldings for overzealous, itchily-fingered backstage crew by artistes, in costume, who harboured pretensions and delusions of their own grandeur.
I watched the faces of the audience members around me: the way they lit up at dance routines, stared when beautiful genies and princesses came on stage, lost themselves in parts of the performance. There were stories forming here too.
I didn’t really follow the story of the show. I didn’t need to, but I couldn’t anyway: there were too many other small stories starting to show themselves in all the tiny dark places of the theatre.
Stories hide behind the shows we think we’re seeing.