Taken out of Context

By Kelsey Blackwell

Context is a debatable topic in the world of theatre. Some scholars harp on it, while others could care less about it.

It could be argued that every piece of theatre is taken out of context, even when it is set in the present. The “present day” from two years or two weeks ago is not the same “present day” of the right here and now. Similarly, and obviously, the “present day” that a playwright refers to in the play she wrote in 1956 could not be the present day that we know today. In this situation, it is then the task of the director to decide if the context and the point of the play are still relevant in today’s “present” or if everything needs to be set in 1956.

In his work Race: A Play, David Mamet points out that a quote by definition is something that is taken out of context. When the play was performed at KCACFT the audience laughed at this line, because it’s true. People of all different professions talk about the morality of taking something out of the context of the author’s original work. While it is a discredit to ignore an author’s entire piece, it would be impractical to think that it should never occur. If no one ever took something out of context, then quotations wouldn’t exist.

“Oh! I know a great phrase that fits this conversation perfectly.”

“Nice. What is it?”

“Well, go read this script. When you get to it, you’ll know.”

Consider the Irene Ryan Auditions. Each scene was taken directly from a longer piece of work. While the talented young actors may have had the green light from publishing companies to use the scenes, is it really ethical to show only part of something much larger and more in depth? If not, then how in the world would actors be able to audition?

Some actors had negative feedback about the way they played their characters during the first round of the Irene Ryan auditions. When certain respondents and judges were familiar with the shows that the candidates used, there was an expectation of the characters and the circumstances to be a reflection of the rest of the play or musical.

So that raises a question…

When the purpose of an audition is to gauge the capability of an actor, does the context really matter?

An actor’s job is to interpret a character. For an audition, an actor’s job is to get a callback. Why, then, should it matter if an actor uses a script to serve her own purpose? Perhaps making a character different from the original character description can raise the stakes, making the actor more dynamic and interesting in the audition. Maybe an actor wants to play the scene so that the character is similar to a part she is auditioning for. Maybe there are strengths that the actor can only emphasize by changing the circumstances of the scene.

Don’t get the wrong idea. I’m not saying that anyone has to right to change an author’s writing; only the original author has that right.

But scenes used in an audition stand alone. In the first place they are taken out of context. Thus, they can be interpreted in any way the actor sees fit. People shouldn’t instantly expect actors to play their parts in the same way that their characters are traditionally played.