TIME STANDS STILL poses questions for our time

posted by Carlyn Aquiline, Literary Manager and Dramaturg

“If your pictures aren’t good enough, you aren’t close enough.” Legendary war photographer Robert Capa dispensed that famous piece of professional advice to his fellow photojournalists. As I sat watching our final dress rehearsal for TIME STANDS STILL on Friday I found myself thinking about that quote and how apropos it is to theatre-making too. We’ve all seen productions that are technically proficient, that look really slick but that somehow lack a soul—they’re all surface, no depth. If we don’t grapple with the really puzzling and difficult questions in the rehearsal hall, search into the depths of the characters to find what makes them tick, dig into the events and moments that make up the action, struggle with the ambiguities and the complexities of a play, it’s not possible to get to its heart and soul. It’s only a really close exploration that can make a play live onstage. Tonight we step back and invite the audience in for a new season of close exploration with us at City Theatre, as TIME STANDS STILL by Donald Margulies starts previews.

Capa’s aphorism could be the catchphrase of Sarah, the photojournalist in TIME STANDS STILL. Sarah and her journalist boyfriend James have spent their careers getting as close as possible to the kind of action most of us are thankful to be far from: war. The play’s many questions and issues resonate in our day and age when mass media is pervasive, news coverage is as instantaneous as the Twitter feed (five years ago did we imagine it could get more direct?), and much of the world—literally several dozen countries, at least—is consumed in armed conflict. Like any conflict photojournalist, Sarah is confronted with questions of why and how she can do conflict photography and the issue of intervention: whether a photojournalist should ever step into the frame to change what she sees. But TIME STANDS STILL is not a “war play” (the playwright himself has said there is no political agenda), and the questions are about much more than the ethics of photojournalism. Rather, the play is about the personal—the relationship between Sarah and James after circumstances bring them back home from a war zone. It’s also about two relationships in contrast to one another—that of Sarah and James, and that of their friend Richard and his new girlfriend, Mandy. The play makes us reflect on personal questions about love, relationships (romantic and friendly), marriage, parenthood, career choices. It also poses big questions of morality and responsibility towards ourselves, those we love, and those suffering and less fortunate than us—“What should (or can) I do with the information I receive through the media—whether photo, print, or TV journalism?” “Does popular culture package real-life suffering as a consumable presentation, and do spectators assuage their own guilt by watching, thinking that’s ‘doing’ something to help?” “How does a person of integrity reconcile the desire for comfort and personal happiness with the knowledge that much of the world is afflicted with daily tragedy and woe?”

Those are just a few teaser questions—though the play at its center is about a relationship, it is also swirling with many ideas. And Margulies, without judgment on the characters’ choices, leaves the answers up to us.

Which brings me back to a quote by another famous photojournalist, Philip Jones Griffiths. “I’m a photographer because I want to find out.… That’s the main reason for doing what I do. The second is when I’ve found out for myself, I want to share my findings.” Once you see the play, share your findings with us: let us know what you find out, what questions and themes come to the fore for you, what ideas are most striking.

See you at the theatre!

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