"We haven’t the money, so we’ve got to think."
—Sir Ernest Rutherford, Nobel Prize winner, 1908
John Doyle certainly knows theater. Over his thirty-year career, he’s staged more than two hundred professional productions throughout the United Kingdom and the United States, mostly in small, regional theater companies. In the early 1990s, while working at such a theater in rural England, the Scottish director came up with an innovative way to produce crowd-pleasing musicals on a tiny budget. Musicals are considerably more expensive to stage than traditional plays, due primarily to the cost of hiring musicians. But Doyle eliminated those excess costs by handing responsibility for musical accompaniment to his actors. The actors onstage doubled as instrumentalists.
This, of course, was classic Task Unification: taking an existing internal resource that is already part of the Closed World (in Doyle’s case, his actors) and giving it a new task (playing musical accompaniment) that had traditionally been performed by another internal resource (musicians).
Doyle quietly opened his production of Sweeney Todd in 2004 at the Watermill Theater in Newbury, England. But as word got out about his unique staging and casting, the show was quickly brought to London’s West End, and, eventually, Broadway.
At first, US audiences and critics were skeptical. Used to expensively produced, high-tech Broadway productions that boasted elaborate sets and twenty-five-piece orchestras, they were shocked when the curtain rose on a bare stage with just ten actors sitting on chairs—actors who doubled as their own accompanists. During intermission, theatergoers were overheard exclaiming to one another, “How dare they do this!”
Doyle explained in an interview that he didn’t set out to break the rules. “It was never meant to be about, ‘We want to get rid of an orchestra.’ It grew out of not being able to afford to have one,” he said. However, being constrained by a lack of money turned out to be a blessing: he realized that he had an opportunity to stretch the audience’s ability to suspend disbelief. “I mean, you don’t often sit with a drink in one hand and a double bass between your legs,” he said. “It doesn’t happen very much in real life. So it kind of asks the audience to take a journey that goes beyond their preconception of what real life is.” Given that Doyle had always been interested in exploring the relationship between actors and audiences, he said he was pleased to have created “an abstraction of reality” that delivered a unique experience to theatergoers.
Doyle made a creative breakthrough, and his “actor-musicianship” method of staging musicals sent shock waves through the international theater scene. Directors at other cash-strapped regional theaters realized that they could emulate his signature style to stage major musicals that were both budget friendly and edgy enough to thrill the most jaded audiences.
Doyle won a Tony Award for Best Director for his actor-musician production of Sweeney Todd in 2006, and one for Best Musical Revival in 2007 for his actor-musician production of Company. Widely hailed as the reinventor of the Broadway musical, Doyle believes that his actormusicianship method turned out to be much more than just an exercise in penny-pinching. “I will do stories that I want to tell, and I will tell them in the appropriate way at the time. What I won’t do is, I won’t use this technique only to make cheap theater,” he said.