To Holmes, Technology Is Elementary : Stage: Playwright Rupert Holmes thrives on gimmicks electronic and otherwise to make his thrillers ‘be the thrill rides of live theater.’
L ive has lost its meaning.
It signified something once. Live action! Live from Hollywood! Real actors in front of us rather than computer-driven images. Going on live was a show-business merit badge.
But true live is seen too rarely. Now we have . . .
The melding of dead and living actors in commercials, as chronicled on these pages earlier this week.
Network football games where more minutes are spent on multi-angled taped replays than in game-time helmet butting.
Singers whose talents rest in their abilities to move lips, not larynxes.
Synthetic music. Enhanced tracks. Dubs and overdubs. Body mikes and body doubles.
For most of the country, “Saturday Night Live” isn’t.
And on radio, the word live has been cheapened and driven into meaninglessness. “My live in-studio guest” insults logical thought.
The television reporter’s breathless “live from the coroner’s office” or the anchor’s “film live at 11" are oxymorons for our time.
Live, too often, is enhanced or faked. True live may be turning into a fiction.
Then there’s that bastion of traditional show business values, the living, breathing theater. Is it, too, now going the way of all flash? For there, up on the Pasadena Playhouse stage is actor Stacy Keach in Rupert Holmes’ “Solitary Confinement,” a two-act drama played out traditionally as well as on an array of television monitors. And at the Mark Taper Forum, Alan Ayckbourn’s “Henceforward . . .” with its TV screens and assorted humans. A coincidence or the future? Actors emoting with electronic images? Has it finally come down to this, tape at the Taper, projectors in Pasadena?
So we went live , via telephone, to writer-composer-gimmickmeister Rupert Holmes, in Westchester, N.Y., but theatrically connected with Pasadena where his entire dramatic output of three “thrillers” (“The Mystery of Edwin Drood,” “Accomplice” and now “Solitary Confinement”) has been staged, the latter two at the Playhouse.
The mixing of humans with electronic deus ex machina can make a certain economic sense. At the Taper, one actor was hired for the two days needed to tape his scenes as an anguished musician. He was paid as if he had worked two weeks. But his performance will appear in all of “Henceforward’s” 64 stagings in eight weeks. There’s potential for gain in the new technologies. Everybody seems to benefit. The general partners and producers of the world can now rub their hands in great expectations of the cost savings implicit in the electronic theater.
Not quite the same thing for “Solitary Confinement,” a play about a Howard Hughesian executive-suite recluse who works 9 to 5 (p.m. to a.m.) by calling up his aides and staff on two-way television connections.
There certainly is a place for these technological gadgets in live theater, Holmes says. And it’s beyond the use of his modem-less word processor that he uses to write his scripts. He is, after all, no enemy of electronic gimmickry. He knows his way around recording studios, having produced his own albums and those of such performers as Barbra Streisand and Dionne Warwick.
In his plays, he thrives on gimmicks electronic and otherwise, leaving the ending of “Drood” up to a vote of the audience. “Accomplice” abounds with twists and surprises. He wants to challenge audiences to think and to try to drive along with him. But he is no friend of special-effects musicals. “Ice Capades theater,” he calls them, where computers and directors are co-equals.
“Nothing can replace the special effects that the theater offers, the ongoing competition for the imagination that goes on between the actor and the audience. The theater can’t compete with movies and television when it comes to physical special effects. The theater exists to be alive, to offer primarily a story and an assortment of characters. I don’t want to blind with lasers but I do want to dazzle with the talents of actors. Technology can help emphasize humanity.
“As promising as these new technologies may be, the most important thing is not to write just to use them, otherwise you end up on a ride at Disneyland with the Imagineers. I want my thrillers to be the thrill rides of live theater.”
So far, “Solitary Confinement” seems to be doing that, having sold out most of its Pasadena appearances through its Dec. 29 close. It moves its monitors and all to San Diego’s Spreckels Theatre next month. After that, maybe a Kennedy Center date, Holmes says. “But you can’t live your life beyond two months in the theater,” Holmes says of the future of his play. “It’s a risky business.”
Holmes seems comfortable taking the risks, pushing theatrical envelopes. So far, despite the proximity of Pasadena to Hollywood’s producers, he has yet to make a movie deal for one of his plays. They love his plays, his music, he says of film producers with whom he’s taken meetings. But Holmes may have word-processed himself into a corner. Imagine a movie based on “Drood” and a multiplex audience seeing the screen go blank and then getting a chance to vote on the 280 possible endings for that story. Imagine a movie based on “Accomplice” where Holmes the author has to be physically present. And “Solitary Confinement” . . . the movie? No bites, yet. It is, despite its many movie- and TV-like gimmicks, something that has to be experienced.
Ironically, Holmes may be carving new technological territories with “Drood.” The CD album of that musical was the first interactive soundtrack made by PolyGram, with listeners able to choose their musical endings much like live theater audiences have done. More recently, Holmes has been talking to executives from Philips, which owns PolyGram, about making an interactive CD video version of “Drood,” which then would allow the viewer to punch up who did it.
Holmes isn’t waiting for Hollywood to figure out how to turn his plays into movies, though. He’s too busy working on two original scripts, one for Paramount called “Speak Easy,” a straight, no-gimmicks film musical. He’ll write the music for it, too. The other is a movie so far untitled but, true to the author’s form, a mystery, a comedy mystery, he says, for Bette Midler via the Disney company. And he’ll do the music.
Then there’s “Swing,” a big Broadway-like musical he hopes to finish soon and have on the Pasadena Playhouse stage late next year.
There are no gimmicks, no mystery, no electronic interactivity in “Swing,” just a lot of singers and dancers and music and a great deal of work for Holmes who is doing its book, score and lyrics. “Swing” is about big bands in their post-World War II final phase. The work by necessity goes slowly. As Holmes says, “I stay up all night writing a lyric but no one shows up the next morning to hand me the music. I have to do that.”
And not to further abuse the word, Holmes has to do all of this virtual bravura one-man performance himself . . . live . . . obviously.