Staging Crowd Scenes So They Don't Look Lame
June 5, 2009
A trip to see California Shakespeare Theater's production of Romeo and Julietdirected by Jonathan Moscone a couple of evenings ago prompted a conversation between myself and a friend about the challenges involved in scenes requiring theatre companies to create the illusion of crowds convincingly.
It's very hard to give theatre-goers a real feeling of a packed and throbbing space when there are only a handful of actors on stage. Different directors approach the problem in a multitude of ways some more successful than others.
The Cal Shakes cast put a lot of energy into staging the masqued ball scene in Romeo and Juliet. A quirky, loose-limbed choreographed dance routine to Rihanna's "Shut Up and Drive" was a lot of fun. The constantly flailing bodies created a jungle-like effect which made it believably tricky for Alex Morf's Romeo to physically make contact with Sarah Nealis' Juliet for the first time having spotted his heart's desire across the room. But despite the energy of the scene, the stage still felt underpopulated and both my friend and I found it hard to suspend our sense of disbelief and feel like we were really experiencing Verona's Party of the Century.
So what techniques have directors used successfully to make crowd scenes feel dense? Big budgets, of course, allow a lot of extra people to appear on stage. Crowd scenes in operas mounted by major companies usually feel busy because of the sheer numbers of supernumaries thrust in front of the footlights.
But what if you only have the money and/or artistic desire to create a crowd scene with three actors? My friend has a solution: He says he once saw a play in which a director created the feeling of a sweaty dance club by cramming the members of his small cast in a tight, see-through box in the middle of the stage. The close quarters apparently created a visceral feeling of compression, of bodies tightly entwined in space. He was won over by the illusion at any rate.
I've seen a similar effect achieved through the judicious use of lighting -- the partygoers stood close together in one part of the stage, which was strongly lit by patterned, club-style lights, and the rest of the stage was dark.
Any more ideas for staging crowd scenes? What works and what doesn't? Drop me a line.