- Fragile Magic: A Guidebook For Theatre Respondents by Ronald A. Willis
Every year thousands of students from hundreds of institutions participate in the Kennedy Center American College Theatre Festival (KCACTF), a national theatre program devoted to promoting excellence in college theatre. College productions from around the country are eligible to participate in regional festivals, and the opportunities for students are significant. The production response, in which a theatre artist/teacher (often, though not always, a faculty member from another institution) attends a college production and then shares his or her perspective as an informed spectator, is a significant part of the program. [End Page 140]
How to prepare and conduct this kind of production response to serve those involved and nurture the elusive process of making satisfying theatre that “works” is the subject of Ronald A. Willis’s aptly titled Fragile Magic (3). The practice of having some kind of articulated response to work in progress (often offered by dramaturgs), certainly exists beyond college theatre. However, KCACTF is the singular model that informs Willis’s guidebook. Consequently, though the book intends—and may offer—wider application, it is really those who might be asked to give verbal responses to student productions who will find this book of most interest.
Fragile Magic, subtitled as “A Guidebook for Theatre Respondents,” has six central chapters. The first four somewhat protracted chapters address the process of observation, offering basic advice on how to approach a performance text in order to pay attention to the ways in which its meaning is constructed by the various elements of production—both aesthetic and para-aesthetic. The two lengthier—and stronger—chapters that logically follow expound on the process of offering feedback. Chapter Five addresses the task of describing the spectator’s experience to the production team in terms of three key foci: the fictive world, the means by which that world is made evident, and the progression of the respondent’s reactions. Chapter Six covers various criteria for assessing a performance’s overall effectiveness and addresses how to most usefully articulate that assessment. The book stresses that respondents remain imaginatively receptive to the work they observe, paying attention to the many different factors that shape it, and leaving inevitable biases aside. It also stresses the importance of articulating a descriptive (rather than prescriptive) response that “helps developing theatre artists understand what they [have] already accomplished, and [provides] them with the wherewithal to improve their future work” (vii).
Little has been written on this topic so far, making Fragile Magic an original contribution to the broader field of dramaturgy. The scarcity of other books on this topic, however, may reflect both Willis’s highly specific context and the fact that, in the absence of case-studies, extended examples, or additional chapters focusing on specific types of performance text and/or response conditions, there might not be quite a book’s worth of information here.
A chapter that focused on new work would have been a welcome addition. Importantly, one of KCACTF’s stated goals is “to encourage universities and colleges to give distinguished productions of new plays, especially those written by students” (KCACTF.org)—a goal supported by a number of prestigious student playwriting prizes. Certainly, many universities stage student-written and group-devised work, with short play festivals proving particularly popular. Willis is clear in his claims for the importance of a performance-centric focus, and that the resulting analytical emphasis is placed on how meaning is constructed through the various forces of production, instead of on what a play’s assumed meaning might be. This is a strength of the book. Yet, there is nonetheless a missed opportunity [End Page 141] here to consider the ways in which the text (script or blueprint) can be an important component of a performance team’s collaborative labor, contributing to the fragile magic of a performance text that works—or does not.
Similarly, while Willis repeatedly notes the importance of remaining open to a wide range of performance texts, a slightly...