Spark in the Dark: Chemistry on Stage

A few years ago, when I was able to wander into a theatrical event on a whim, I went to a new game workshop and expected something more than a demonstration with potential. Although the re-invented premise of history immediately caught my eye, after about 10 minutes of reading, I realized that something else was going on – some flammable chemistry.

For this two-character play, the director cast actors that I saw in many performances and even several times together in large productions. Although I consider both great actors, one has relied on a number of silly accent roles in recent years; the other was the one who wanted to play bastards with the layers. But the moment I watched them move deeper into the story, it was like watching an action movie where the heroes trapped in the kitchen mixed a lot of common household cleaners and spices and then lit a makeshift fuse. They stood seven feet apart at the music stands, never touching, performing the elusive acting alchemy, burning the stage and the non-existent ensemble to the ground.

As I lay on the couch, I thought a lot about living, personal stage chemistry. Always subjective and in the eyes of the observer, does it really exist and how does it happen? Now that we’re back in theaters, I’ve decided to quantify this elusive quality, and I’m asking those who spend a lot of time watching – directors and critics – what we mean when we say: chemistry.

Rob Melrose, artistic director of the Alley Theater, admits that he is not a fan of the term, believing that it is too often used to describe two attractive people together on screen. For the stage, however, he is willing to define chemistry as “actors who are deep in the moment, alive and surprising. They surprise me and surprise their partner. “

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Of the critics I asked, most said that the chemistry on stage is very real and more authentic than the chemistry on screen. In separate interviews, Houston Press Jessica Goldman and critic Dallas a Art and culture Writer Lindsey Wilson made a similar point.

“On-screen chemistry can be controlled by camera angles, music, filters, and a variety of ways to manipulate one’s ability to see or feel the scene,” says Goldman. “Stage chemistry is much more basic – it doesn’t have enough crunchiness to work. Either it pays or it doesn’t. “

“Knowing that there aren’t a few shots cut together or different camera angles manipulating the result means that all the imagination is gone. The audience has something true and raw in front of them, “Wilson repeats, but notes that another factor acts as a catalyst. “I think there’s always an extra spark on stage because a living audience supplies electricity.”

Nancy Wozny, Art and culture The editor-in-chief and dance writer and scientist believe that chemistry definitely exists on dance, but it’s a “know it when you see it” phenomenon.

When I asked about examples of chemistry on stage, many of these critics and directors offered romantic or sexual couples on stage, but found surprises as an inner role. Dave Steakley, producing director of Austin’s Zach Theater, saw a casting love story while directing the musical. Once.

“I narrowed it down to Corbin Mayer, the actor I worked with as in Million Dollar Quartet, and actress Olivia Nice, whom I first met. I had them sing “Falling Slowly” with her on the piano several times and he on the guitar, and it was the most electrifying chemistry I’ve ever experienced. It seemed to me that they were completely in love at the moment, and they, like the characters they portrayed, met as completely strangers. ”

I wasn’t prepared for the hot chemistry between Callina Anderson and Dan Geist in Lucy Prebble. EffectSays Goldman. “They’re both great actors I’ve admired before – but put them together and let them be guinea pigs who love / hate each other, and finally get involved … and KABOOM !!!”

Several directors and critics I asked also had many examples of actors who often collaborated together and still caught fire on stage. Wilson says he’s always looking for shows from a real couple from Dallas, Kelsey Milbourn and Mitchell Stephens.

“They’re both so specific and precise with their bodies in every show that their connection is amplified when they’re on stage together.” Both appeared in Everything is going to be okay, a co-production of Prism Movement Theater and Stage West presented outside at the beginning of COVID. Narrated without dialogue and to include all our concerns about this ‘new virus’ it was a heartbreaking, joyful, frightening and exciting experience. “

Goldman also finds that behind-the-scenes romantic relationships don’t necessarily mean chemistry on stage, yet sometimes friendship and trust make a big difference.

“I saw happily married actors who had zero chemistry on stage. And I saw a group of friends whose love for each other was bleeding. The example of the latter comes from the perhaps already defunct company Gravity Players and specifically their show The last days of Judas IscariotSays Goldman.

Steakley offers Jill Blackwood and Matt Redden as two actors who are often cast together and yet always create music and comic chemistry.

“They’re both tall and ridiculously handsome, singing like the most beautiful singers you’ve ever heard. At the same time, they are such embarrassing cads and can be refined and fun when they want to. ”

As for comedy chemistry, I’ll see practically anything with Tamarie Cooper and Kyle Sturdivant of the Catastrophic Theater. Their friendship and years of working together continue to bring surprising tension throughout the scene and have improved their timing in dramatic roles.

For those well-known dance partners who are still sizzling, Wozny says: “Houston ballet directors Karina Gonzalez and Connor Walsh have entered into the most exciting partnership since Lauren Anderson / Carlos Acosta. Gonzalez and Walsh are always happy to watch no matter what they dance. ”

Melrose believes that true chemistry comes from a balance of trust and vulnerability. “By not allowing yourself to be vulnerable, you’re not really opening a window to partner chemistry.” It’s the vulnerability, giving in to your partner, “he says, citing recent examples of Alley actors playing father and son. He says during 72 miles to the finish line Orlando Arriaga and Christopher Salazar went together to “improve and review” their performances. As director SweatMelrose found a key scene between Shawn Hamilton and Derrick J. Brent II playing a father and son “alive and unstable at all times, moving from anger to great love of admiration.”

Melrose also uses dance as an analogy when trying to figure out exactly what creates chemistry among actors. “It’s a lot of weight change in dance.” On the one hand, it’s dangerous, because if your partner doesn’t catch you, you’ll fall and hurt yourself, but if you have the confidence to put your weight on, it’s really convincing. “

Wozny uses similar ideas to describe one recent incineration that broadened her notions of chemistry as she watches Houston dance artists Kayla Collymore and Donna Crump in their Gend[H]ehm performance.

“It simply came to our notice then. They created a vortex of energy between them that changed as their duet evolved. The quality of giving and receiving, their ability to reconcile their nuances, has become one of the most exciting dance events in Houston this season. Their hissing kinetic relationship continued in their hybrid live / film action LINEAR / FUNCTIONS this September. “

Confidence and risk, familiarity and surprise, perhaps as scientific chemical reactions, that performance chemistry comes from those opposing forces that come together to create that volatile reaction, sometimes destructive, sometimes creative, but always fireworks. And somewhere in the dark, the live audience hits the original charge.

—TARRA GETS

David Berry

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