On the Value of Stillness in Theater

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[A few years ago Daniel and I were discussing a play we had both seen that we thought was lacking . . . something. That discussion prompted him to write this essay for our newsletter. The essay in turn sparked a larger discussion that led to our next production, Small Mouth Sounds. I’m reposting it so that the conversation can continue. —TEM]

Recently, I attended an opening night at one of Seattle’s long-established theater companies. The production was admirable; the play an American classic. The actors—some of my favorites in Seattle—bit into the playwright’s steamy, provocative language with delight. But, as the well-deserved applause died down after the show, I regretted that something vital had been missing from the art:  stillness. 

By stillness I do not mean quiet. The play had little of quiet in it either, but it was written to be noisy; characters even lament the lack of quiet, the noise drowning out their attempts to find truth. No, by stillness I mean that moment where awareness and incipience meet, the pause (not cessation) in a dramatic action where the characters, and the audience, hold their collective breath to discover what might come next—the moment of pregnant potential. 

A friend of mine recently spent three days at Ocean Shores birding, and identified 61species of birds. I imagine her needing to be quiet in order to see the birds, but silence would not be sufficient. No, she needed to be still: aware, observant, alert to what would come into view and ready to identify it. Her stillness would be as alive as life itself . . . pregnant with the potential of 61 species. 

That opening night I mentioned above was hardly an anomaly. I’ve worked for twenty years in Seattle theater, and on this issue—trust in the value and power of stillness—I find myself an outlier. I don’t know why stillness is rare in our local theater, why shows seem hell-bent on action that seldom pauses, dwells, contemplates the danger of an alternative outcome. Maybe we’re afraid the drama will stumble if we slow the forward charge. Our audiences might text, tweet—oh gosh, even stand to leave—if we ourselves go still. But whatever the reason, I think our theater suffers from it. 

Perhaps the answer to that suffering can be found in music. I view a play as a score to conduct, rather than a text to direct. I recently heard a splendid definition of stillness in music: silence with a pulse. The beat goes on underneath the silence; tension builds, imagination soars. Think of a ballerina, en pointe, negotiating with gravity: still.   

A few nights ago I attended final dress rehearsal of Seattle Opera‘s splendid production of Richard Strauss’ Ariadne auf Naxos. Afterwards, I wrote to Jonathan Dean about his translation of the final lines of the comic soprano Zerbinetta, “Captive we are, silent . . .” He wrote back that in the opera office they’d discussed that moment, how the character of Zerbinetta, who throughout the opera has a ready answer for everything, seems to have been rendered speechless at the end by what she’s witnessed, what she’s experienced. It’s a moment of magic, made so as much by Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s insightful libretto as Strauss’ transcendent music. The director and soprano understood this—Zerbinetta, who had been in non-stop movement throughout her time on stage, now went still, slowly reaching out her hand to place on the shoulder of the “Composer” who has composed the opera within the opera, and sang her line “Captive we are, silent . . .” The musical pulse of the opera continued, but her stillness made silence sing. 

Walking home from the opera, I thought of the end of Sibelius’ Fifth Symphony, a symphony I’ve loved for years and was lucky enough to hear live recently when the Seattle Symphony celebrated Sibelius with a full festival of all his symphonies. The Fifth ends with a series of massive chords, separated by long pauses. The stillness between the chords is—to me—as striking as the chords themselves, creating a sensation that, once heard, can never be forgotten. I called up my friend Adam Stern, who conducts the Seattle Philharmonic (and who gave me a complete set of the Sibelius symphonies years ago to further my musical education), and asked him about the stillness between the chords:  how is it done, how is it marked, how does it work? He told me the music is in a broad three; there are six massive chords; the “sound” of the orchestra leaves off after each chord, but the pulse continues in absolute time (or should, he said), creating almost unbearable tension. The “silence” between the chords therefore becomes a silence of movement, a silence of progression, a silence of incipience.  He ended our conversation with a quote from Aldous Huxley:  “After silence, that which comes nearest to expressing the inexpressible is music.” 

When we in theater take a break from worrying about the pure entertainment potential of our craft, when we summon up the courage to try and explain—to our friends, families, marginal bank accounts—why what we do matters, we often say (in our best grant-application lingo) that our art explores, engages, gives expression to the complexities of people’s hearts and character. In other words, we try, at our most idealistic, to help express the inexpressible.  

Why not let the stillness that music employs—silence with a pulse—help us with that expression?

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