Reading at the theater? One of those Bad Ideas

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We've seen a lot of reading at Spoleto. Last week, a performance of a Bach cantata by the Westminster Choir was punctuated by a wave of sound from people turning pages to keep up with the lyrics. First, it was startling. And then it was funny. Reading was evidently important to getting the most out of Westminster's a cappella concert at the Cathedral of St. Luke and St. Paul, too. Don't want to miss the meaning of all those hosannas.

At least reading made sense at these concerts. If you wanted to follow along, you could, because the "house" lights were left up. That's standard for choral concerts. And besides, it's not like you're going to miss the action on stage. It's a choir. They're dressed in black (mostly). They're standing up front. That's about all you need to know.

Theater, however, is a different animal. The house lights are supposed to go down to create the illusion that you're watching a new world unfold on stage. Aside from the most abstract work for the stage, there's usually some kind of action taking place — people doing something to other people somewhere at some time. If what happens on stage requires you to gaze downward, away from the stage and onto a piece of paper with, say, song lyrics on them, doesn't that indicate a kind of fundamental problem with the whole enterprise?

I think so, and I apologize for appearing to be condescending. I don't mean to. I know all this is obvious, but it evidently escaped the attention of the people who ought to know better, the people behind Addicted to Bad Ideas. Much of the work's meaning was to be found in writing, I was told by Martha Teichner, the veteran CBS correspondent who donates her time to the festival by conducting the Conversations Series.

We happened to be seated next to Teichner. As we waited for the start, we made small talk. She said she had seen Addicted to Bad Ideas in New York and was struck by the fact that she couldn't hear the lyrics. The lyrics, she said, were vital to getting the full meaning of the show. And Terricloth is really a good writer, she said. So she took it on herself to call Terricloth's people to suggest he put them on paper. And they did.

The result was a kind of house divided at the opening of Addicted to Bad Ideas. On the one hand, there were young 20- and 30-somethings rocking out, loving the music and the multimedia show. Some were even singing along, apparently familiar with the storyline from the get-go. On the other were boomers, head bent down, trying to use the ambient light from the stage to read the printed matter, green foam plugs crammed into their ears.

Some people got some of the meaning some of the time, but no one got all of it all the time (unless they already knew the piece). It's sad that Bad Ideas is marred by one bad idea. All it needs now are some good ones.

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