Angels in America: The Theatrical A/B Test

Primary Photo by Luke Michael on Unsplash

Rare is the opportunity to observe an A/B test on stage. Acting teachers likely see this sort of thing more often, but regular theatre artists like me certainly do not. On occasion, I’ve seen the same show twice, with an understudy going the second time. I’ve seen nine different productions of A Funny Thing Happened On the Way to the Forum. And we all draw comparisons between different interpretations of roles and scripts. But for an A/B test, as you would use in business, you have to make each test group as similar as possible. The goal of an A/B test is to line up two groups with as many identical (or nearly identical) elements as possible, observe what happens, and analyze the results to get a clearer look at the elements that were different. Using that data, you adjust your systems going forward.

This past weekend, I had the opportunity to compare and contrast the work of two groups of actors live on stage. The event was University of Oklahoma’s Gilson Lab Theatre production of Angels in America Part 1: Millennium Approaches, and Part 2: Perestroika. I’d never seen any stage production of the play, familiar only with the stunning cable TV adaptation, and of course having read the scripts when I was in college. Having decided it’s a rite of passage for theatre artists to attend both plays being performed in repertory, together on the same day, back to back, in order, we cleared our schedules and bought tickets for a full day of theatregoing. Millennium Approaches was presented as a 3pm matinee, and Perestroika started at 7:30pm. In between shows, we ran across the street to grab a burger, then scurried back as fast as we could since the seats were general admission and both shows were sold out. It was the most time I’d ever spent in a theatre in one day that wasn’t a 12 hour tech rehearsal for Hello, Dolly!

The experience of seeing Angels in America A Gay Fantasia on National Themes” target=”_blank” rel=”noopener”>Angels in America from beginning to end in essentially one sitting was noteworthy in and of itself, but as a bonus, these productions offered a number of unique opportunities to see theatre education and artistic process in action. Each part was performed by a completely different set of actors, with the exception of the lead character, Prior Walter, admirably portrayed in both by Chase Durrett. The set was nearly identical for each part, with only a few bits of set dressing swapped out between shows. The actors cast in corresponding roles were not doppelgangers, but similar costumes were used in each half. The most notable difference was the use of primarily underclassmen in Part 1, and upperclassmen in Part 2. This decision magnified three areas that I found fascinating.

Angels in America

In Millennium Approaches, the younger, more novice actors had a high level of earnestness when it came to playing the scenes. It should be noted that each part was led by a different director, but my impression was that this deeply rooted, wholehearted delivery of the dialogue came largely from the young actors themselves. I say this because the two slightly more experienced members of the cast didn’t have the same level of resolute conviction. This might have been due to their youth, but there are countless older actors that embody this earnest spirit. This observation became even more clear later in the day.

For Perestroika, the slightly more experienced actors were slick and polished, clearly more educated on acting technique. Where the underclassmen fumbled with staging a bit or were muddy in their character choices, the upperclassmen operated like a well-oiled machine. This had its benefits, but that high-level earnestness was gone, and I missed it. Some of these junior and senior college-level actors also had a tendency to push the use of physical acting technique too far. The man playing Joe Pitt in Part 2 clearly knew how to use physical expression to pull emotion out of the audience, but relied too heavily on these type of acting devices, and not enough on just living in the words. In the beach scene, the actor moved at a frantic pace, visibly pushing himself to an emotional explosion. It would have been more effective if he’d just listened to the things his character was saying and simply told the story. Earnestly.

The overall experience led me to a third observation that I think was unique to these particular productions. As I mentioned before, the casts were almost entirely different in each half of Tony Kushner’s epic work. The character choices were starkly different between each of the matched actors, as well. When Perestroika began, it was slightly shocking to pick back up with characters in a disparate universe from the one I was in before my burgers and fries. However, as Part 2 rolled along, and these new interpretations came to life on stage, my mind assimilated each pair of deviating characters into one complete, complex portrait. It was as if the other similarities surrounding the show built bridges between the two sets of people, and I left thinking of each character as having had one connected journey. It was rarely satisfying, and I suspect that my impressions and responses to both casts combined have led to a higher level of appreciation for each. This must be true in many plays, where we are engaged by some scenes and bored in others, but ultimately satisfied overall. Once the story is complete, our brains discretely weave the pieces together to help us think about the entire performance as a whole.

Although a full day of Angels in America is bound to be a transformative experience, I’m very grateful for the bonus of observing a theatrical A/B test. There isn’t a “winner” of course, because this is breathtaking, emotional art, and everyone one wins upon mere participation. Moving forward, I’ll work harder to nurture the earnest spirit of younger actors. If I’m working with someone who has a lot of training but limited real-world experience, I’ll guide them in finding the balance between the implementation of learned technique and connecting to the material naturally. When I’m in an audience and see a characterization that seems fragmented, I’ll be patient, and give my brain a chance to weave the pieces together.