With Great Power…

12.21.10 | 9 Comments

CATEGORIES actors, advocacy, directors, producers, technical work

I don’t think anything that’s really creative can be done without danger or risk. — Julie Taymor

I’m not here to judge the merits of Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. I haven’t seen the play, I’ve only heard one less-than-thrilling song. But I do know the people involved are capable of excellent work. Bono and the Edge can certainly write good songs. Julie Taymor created a magnificent blend of puppetry and dance in the Lion King. Glen Berger can switch between excellent plays like Underneath the Lintel and thoughtful, clever programming for children like Fetch! With Ruff Ruffman on PBS.

Even a few weeks ago, in spite of these two New York Times posts about the economics the show has to overcome, I would’ve said I hoped they could pull it out and surprise us all.

That was before this.

And then last night.

And news this morning that the actor is in “serious condition.”

Jaime Weinman of Maclean’s has an excellent post about the problems of previews and how a lot of what we’ve been hearing isn’t out of the ordinary for such a production. And, by chance, Howard Sherman posted yesterday morning at the American Theatre Wing site about why theatres’ greatest effects come from actors and writing, not actual technical special effects. As for last night, a quick search of Twitter will turn up more than enough righteous anger about the incident, how it was handled and what the producers plan to do about it. I don’t need to duplicate their efforts here.

What disturbs me is Taymor’s quote above, taken from this CBS News report.

It’s entirely possible her quote was taken out of context. I know that the writing I’m most proud of has come from a very personal place. I understand the risk and danger in exposing that place, even if veiled or transformed into fiction. I know from working with actors how they expose different aspects of themselves when creating a role, the risk and dangers involved in identifying too closely with a character, all of that. And I can understand why someone would want to take that quote and use it in this case, because it makes for a more sensational story.

UPDATE: The quote is in fact out of context, it was from an earlier CBS report, the profile and preview of the show that appeared last month on 60 Minutes. Why it turned up in the middle of this article with no further attribution, I don’t know.

One thing that’s been missed in a lot of stories is that last night’s accident was not a flying stunt at all. Spider-Man was apparently supposed to run to the edge of a bridge, reach out and the lights would go to a blackout. It appears that the safety harnesses and ropes meant to keep him from falling off the edge failed. If that’s what happened, then it’s the kind of accident that could’ve happened in almost any production. But it does make one nervous about all the actual flying effects in the show.

Spectacle tech is just another tool in our belts. We don’t need it, but we can use it, that’s fine. If your show needs an exploding chandelier, by all means, try it, see if it works. But without the foundation of story, it’s empty flash. As stunning as the Lion King is to watch, it wouldn’t have endured without a solid story and characters. Any story worth telling can be told by one person with a chair, and the chair is optional. It’s amazing how easily we can forget that.

Goodness knows, Berger can construct a story–if you don’t know Underneath the Lintel or his other work, get acquainted and thank me later. This time around, he’s getting second-billing as book writer under Taymor. That means she’s the lead writer, if credit has been assigned properly. As Jaime Weinman points out, this has only worked once before, when Bob Fosse co-wrote Chicago. In that case, he had a deep connection to the story, he knew when to let the writers write, and by the way, he was Bob Fosse.

Lion King notwithstanding, actors are not puppets. Or, in this case, marionettes. In a production like this, it’s the producers’ and director’s responsibility to ensure safe working conditions. No musical, no theatrical event, is worth this kind of danger.

Spectacle tech is a means to an end, not the end itself.

It shouldn’t ever be where we find the danger and risk in creativity.


A tangent, but in case you’re interested in where the phrase “with great power comes great responsibility” originally came from, you might check out this post by Mark Evanier, tracking down the possible sources. You might be surprised.

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David J. Loehr

David J. Loehr

Writer / Producer, The Incomparable Radio Theater :: Artist-in-Residence / Producer, Riverrun Theatre Company, Madison, Indiana :: Artistic Director / Editor, 2amt :: Panelist, The Incomparable podcast :: Husband, father, cat owner, cat bed.
David J. Loehr

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  • Well, said my friend. Well said.

    It’s so hard to stand behind this show continuing when the caliber of show itself just doesn’t support what’s been happening to the people involved.

    • Thank you.

      I was wondering what you’d think, since you have seen the show and most of us here have not.

      • I really want it to do well. But not at this cost.

        To quote Bono, they need to “Go away and dream it all up again.”

        I knew it wasn’t a good sign when we met The Edge and mentioned Spider-Man and he looked away when saying it was going to be great.

        I know this team has it in them to make something spectacular all around. Not there yet. At all.

  • I was going to write this post myself, for my own blog. Now I don’t need to. This post says exactly what I was going to say. Thank you for saying it.

    Spectacle needs to emerge from the demands of storytelling. My impression of what’s happening with this show, admittedly second-hand, is that story is being crammed in and around spectacle instead. If so, I suspect it’s doomed even if they far more important safety issue are addressed properly.

  • Shanna

    i agree with what has been said here, but i also think that it should be noted that the quote from the cbs segment this morning was taken from filming from the 60 minutes segment that aired in November. In context, Julie is talking about how embarking on the Spiderman project itself is a danger and risk. This is not the actual reaction she released regarding last night’s catastrophe.

    • Thank you for clearing that up. It seemed like an odd quote applied to this incident; too bad CBS didn’t cite the earlier interview, choosing instead to imply the quote was related to this.

  • Anonymous

    Well said, David. I was rooting for this monstrosity of a show, contemplated taking the husband too. But I walked out of The Lion King at intermission–spectacle is nice and all but without a good book (and good music, Elton made my ears bleed), forget it (and I guess we’ll agree to disagree here).

    I do wonder what some scrappy downtown company could do with the Spidey story. It may not be all shiny and tech-fancy, but I suspect it would kick some ass.

  • BrittneyFG

    “Any story worth telling can be told by one person with a chair, and the chair is optional. It’s amazing how easily we can forget that.”

    Well said! I have seen some flashy, fancy tech-heavy shows in recent months and, while some were better than others, in every instance I would have preferred storytelling to cool projections and honesty to heavy handed “acting.”

    I’m sure that storytelling is what has kept theatre alive through the centuries. It would be a shame to kill it in forgetting that.

  • Anonymous

    I know I’m late to this party, but you make some excellent points here, David. Thank you for articulating them.