Thursday, February 23, 2006

Our Style is Legendary

Writers' Block is a brilliant idea. The Operating Theatre Company has brought together a week of new plays, all given readings at the Tristan Bates Theatre. The key to the benefit of a seated reading is that it comes at the right time for the script and its writer. With minimal light, no sets, and only a short rehearsal process, you put your piece up for scrutiny. And I've seen a lot of plays crack under that pressure, laid bare and flattened by the exposure that it simply wasn't ready to handle. Luckily, this time the play was more than prepared, and so it was a pleasure.

Daniel Hoffman-Gill is a graduate of my course, a performer, writer, and director. He has written Our Style is Legendary with a completely absorbing tone of familiarity. The detail and depth of character in these teenaged boys is genial and real. They are the type of guys that everyone knows, and yet Daniel avoids the temptation to make them cliche and vague. And while it is clear that the writer knows these circumstances all too well, it never crosses the line into distractingly self-referential; the characters are built strong enough to stand on their own. What a pleasant experience for my first proper London play reading. I look forward to more, and wish Daniel and his lovely cast good luck.

From the program sheet,
"Our Style is Legendary is the true story of three boys growing up in the St. Ann's area of Nottingham. It takes place over a period of five years from 2001-05, following the boys transition from 12 to 16 and charts the essential nature of teenage male friendship, hewn from the reality of the estate, the waste grounds, the car parks, the boarded up shops and empty community centres. It is a story of boys becoming young men and struggling to escape the background they're born into: railing against the poverty and the emptiness around them and turning to each other for someone they can trust to go with them on their journey."

More readings at the Tristan Bates each night at 7:30 pm through Saturday!

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Dramaturgs have feelings too...

Okay, chances are you won't think this is funny.

But if you're reading this, you are a) a confessed theatre dork, or b) my boyfriend.

The director of our text project left the following valentine for me after a rehearsal, printed out on the tiniest scrap of paper with sticker hearts attached:

'Dear Ann,

You have the most beautiful (outside) eyes."


Sunday, February 19, 2006

My Week of Celebrity Encounters and More Indecision

Fate found me in the offices of Out of Joint Theatre Company earlier this week. I had a cup of tea and a chat with their literary manager, Alex. She was regaling me with her tales of unsolicited scripts, when I asked after their experiences with Talking to Terrorists and the Permanent Way. Long story short, she referred me straight to Max Stafford-Clark himself.

I was unprepared to this sudden turn of events. It was more than surreal to walk into his office, sit in his chair, and converse about his work with David Hare and Robin Soans. I was completely, utterly star-struck. This man is a legend of directing, and I (ME! A bumbling, unrehearsed mess of a girl from a middle-sized town in Pennsylvania) was asking him questions, telling him about my work. He gave me advice and wished me luck...and thank God, I was able to avoid looking like an total idiot (I think). As cliche as it sounds, his work with new writing is an inspiration. Had it been a major filmstar that I met that day, I would have been less intimidated/impressed/in awe.

And go figure, yesterday, Helena Bonham-Carter, Tim Burton, and their son needed help finding a book when they came into the bookshop where I work.

On Friday, Coll and I met with a journalist from the London College of Communications. We're hoping he can help give us some perspective and grounding on our verbatim venture. We're still weighing the pros and cons of involving our performers in the interviewing process. Any thoughts?

I almost saw a play I loved last night. It wasn't Blackbird by David Harrower, it was the play it came so close to being.

In summary, it is an emotionally charged story of a relationship between of 12 year old girl and a 40 year old man, 15 years on from their affair, when they meet again for the first time.

For a play with so many heavy-handed and over-obvious devices in place (mostly due to the direction by Peter Stein...I'm talking musical underscoring for monologues, literal metaphors in the design, and trite moments...), it remained an engaging experience. Nothing new is revealed; you know everything you need to know just from the advertising outside of the Albery. And so, the circumstances are set. You know you are about to view a major confrontation, and it unravels as you would expect: with awkward sensuality, familiarity, passion, anger, misunderstanding, confessions, memories, tears, shouting, questioning, and a few chairs getting thrown. But it is beautifully ambiguous. The most satisfying part of this piece was the fact that I left not knowing what I thought of it; and I still don't.

Jodhi May and Roger Allam were both engrossing and exhausting to watch. The writing seemed off somehow, like it couldn't or wouldn't stylistically acknowledge what it was or how it was, vacillating between poetry and naturalism. The pauses were off, the cut-offs poorly timed, and the monologues segued imperfectly. But it was absorbing!

And here I indulged, as I imagine many of my fellow audience did as well. We were given the opportunity to go past watching the action in front of us. You are intentionally prevented from establishing a clear sense of who is to blame in the situation onstage. You go into your head, into the relationship that defined your existence, the one that is inescapable and unforgettable, for better or worse. And you realize it still haunts you, that it helped bring you to the present day, and that it defies judgment. It was what it was.

Blackbird, written by David Harrower and directed by Peter Stein, continues through 13 May 2006 at the Albery Theatre, London.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Odds and Ends

All of this talk about In-Yer-Face theatre got me to thinking. To generalize an entire genre without reading or seeing much of it seems a bit risky, and so I'll ask you all to look past the Sierz book (although it is a good resource to complement the experience). The shock tactics that got people up in arms have now taken on their own energy, separated from the plays that birthed them. It seems dangerous to give fragments such a power of their own. Go back to Bond's Saved and Brenton's the Romans in Britain. All you hear about these works centers on one of their respective scenes: the baby in the carriage, and the soldiers raping the young man, right? Read the damn plays, and you might realize that these scenes are not necessarily the most brutal statements within them, nor are the plays themselves necessarily brutal. But the acknowledgement of violence and obscenity are integral.

Edward Bond explains: "Violence shapes and obsesses our society, and if we do not stop being violent we have no future. People who do not want writers to write about violence want to stop them writing about us and our time. It would be immoral not to write about violence."

And Bond himself refers to Saved as a work of incredible, hopeless optimism.

Sarah Kane? A Romantic at heart. Look at the final line of Blasted, where a simple "Thank you" is proof of the extreme humanity at the source of the entire affair, all babies eaten and rapes aside.

These aren't all plays constructed to capitalize on shock and disgust. It isn't just violence for the sake of violence. Not every contemporary playwright is trying to be purposefully provocative; sometimes they actually mean what they are writing. These are elements of our experience, honestly and truthfully depicted with nothing held back, and carefully brought into focus.


At the tiny Gate theatre in Notting Hill, you will find a heartfelt and resonant production of Strindberg's last play, The Great Highway. Rare productions like this will get any dramaturg in a state of excitement. Oddly enough, this was my first station drama, and its status as such intimidated me...that is, until the production unfolded. The traditional stations were replaced by a staggered and overlapping system of gigantic photographs, the images lost to almost all of them and the corners curled with age, and it is here the action unfolds. The proximity of actors to audience in this tiny black box made it strangely and hauntingly accessible. The text itself ebbs and flows with Strindberg's poetry and prose, made immediate by the remarkable lead. We follow this man on his journey through memory, and are rewarded by the things he meets along the way, even unto himself at the close. It is a long play, but an investment in art and classic means that we should be careful not to lose sight of in the theatre we make today.

The Great Highway continues through March 4 at the Gate Theatre.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Wrights of Play

What is the play that has changed your life? Have you seen a production that changed the way you look at the world, or read a work that altered your entire perception?

I joined the playwrights for their lecture this morning. (I'm an honorary writer, it seems.) On most occasions there is more conversation than lecture, which is definitely a good thing. An interesting point was raised: Do we ever really see, or read, or even write plays that take us to the pinnacle, that exemplify all that they are capable of? Or, rather, do we simply keep up with our attempts in the knowledge that some grander good is possible (having seen glimpses of it), even if we never reach such a summit? We may recognize moments of sublime truth in bits and pieces, and so we continue to chase that elusive completion of the whole.

It is that reaching that keeps us writing and creating, that striving that pulls us in new directions and allows new tactics, new voices to emerge.

I traveled to Trafalgar Studios this evening. Theatre has now become my prime means of relaxation: the thing to do when I want to turn off my echoing thoughts (well, that and watching What Not to Wear/ Project Runway...*sigh*...such a weakness for fashion-related programming. Please don't judge me adversely.) Colin Teevan has been on my list of contemporary writers to read for quite some time. Instead of reading, I listened to a little under 2 hours of incredibly melodious and textural speech, his written words flowing through the mouth of actor Greg Hicks. In Missing Persons: Four Tragedies and Roy Keane, Teevan reveals his poetic and rhythmic voice by giving us 5 monologues . The variety and depth of each separate character was an unraveling mystery to behold. And the space had accepted that same textural sensitivity as the text, with smoke, flame, wood, leaves, fabric, chains, water, smells,....every detail in place. Teevan himself describes it: "Missing Persons are stories of modern men in crisis, alienated and isolated from society: in other words, apt men to find in a black box."

This morning we discussed the notion that every play was in fact political. As was the process of writing one, of sending out a message into the world. You can't say anything interesting about human beings unless you are engaged with the world at large.

We've been grappling with our entry point into verbatim theatre and it's political/social responsibility. "Issues" are daunting, but people aren't. Just read Hare's "The Permanent Way" for proof that ANY subject or historical event has a human connection that should be explored.

And shouldn't we do our part to stir up a consciousness? To a degree, we want to be confrontational; asking questions should create a reaction of some sort. And perhaps we can start to inspire heated debates in the foyer post-performance. It's a hard thing to do nowadays, or at least it seems that way. We each wrote down a list of the five things we considered to be the most pressing issues in the world today, and what was #1?

(Getting someone to care. Drawing people out of their reality-tv bubbles. Educating ourselves. Becoming involved in politics. Looking past our own kinespheres. Finding a relationship to the bigger picture. Taking responsibility.)

Missing Persons: Four Tragedies and Roy Keane continues at the Trafalgar Studios through 25 February.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Steal This Post

Originality is the fine art of remembering what you hear but forgetting where you heard it. ~Laurence J. Peter

Stealing in my field is encouraged. You have to take things, make them your own, acknowledge your sources, but it is stealing nonetheless. Accept it. Embrace it. Find originality in it. As Ana says, acknowledging our sources makes us bigger, not smaller.

The moment I decided to disregard much of my undergraduate experience came when reading Peter Brook's The Empty Space, and realizing that a particularly fine production of Marat/Sade I had witnessed a few years before had been shaped by production methods laid out as an example in this book. And had anyone else who had viewed the play established that connection? No, not that I had ever heard. It bothered me for a long while. But I still cannot figure out precisely why...

I want to think that our minds will put together endless combinations of astounding and life-altering beauty and ingenuity. Even so, it appears that there are only 8 archetypal stories in existence. Subvert them, repeat them, chop them up in tiny pieces, but they remain.

Phelim McDermott, director of Improbable, has been our mentor for the Devising Project. He's a proponent of 'whatever you have, that is the right thing'. His environmental quest exercise enables one to find an answer to any question you might have, right there in your field of vision. And don't forget to thank the environment for providing that answer.

We provided an open-ended stimulus. There was no question to be answered, no theme to adhere to, just a collection of objects, images, and music. Do with them what you will. I thought this would be remarkably freeing, a liberation from the guidelines we are trying to escape from on this course. But I heard endless complaints about it: What was the point? What do we do with this? How do these things go together? What do we do next?

Well, no one knew because the answers to those questions don't exist. I was just providing a starting point. Completely arbitrary. I wanted to see what might happen. And so "Collected//Connected" was born.

Phelim is an extraordinary and imaginative soul. He advocates the things that seem so simple, and yet prove so challenging in practice: Follow your curiosity. Value your mistakes, let them take you somewhere. Follow your hunches. Turn up. Tell the truth about what is happening. Pay attention. Don't be attached to results. Find the story you are telling, but also find the story of the people that are telling it. Do the thing you think you cannot do.

The idea of 'happy accidents' is my favorite. If you have a dream with a ravenous tiger attacking you, put that in, see what happens. Bring these things onstage, into your work.

Say yes; always, always choose to go through the door. Stop inventing excuses to stay on this side of it.

Saturday, February 04, 2006

Everyone's a Critic

Our text-based project is looming. Each of four companies gets a writer, the goal being that said writer will show up to the first rehearsal with script in hand. The challenge? Source the new work from a stimulus. And that stimulus, after hours of half-hearted searching, is the oeuvre of one Dave Eggers (namely the short short stories).

I've never had so much fun doing my production protocol!

I read so much crap theory all day long that it becomes a welcome burst of reality when practitioners and theoreticians can admit that a lot of what they do is filler, fluff, or plain speculation. There comes a point where you have to stop talking about making art AND JUST MAKE ART.

I'm sick of audiences passing judgment without rational thought and experience behind it. I don't want to be a drama critic, because quite frankly, who am I to tell you what is good or bad, right or wrong? Especially in regard to art and expression...

Kathy Acker said:

"I've never been sure about the need for literary criticism. If a work is immediate enough, alive enough, the proper response isn't to be academic, to write about it, but to use it, to go on. By using each other's texts, we keep on living, imagining, making, fucking, and we fight this society of death."

Eggers has his own comments, from a 2000
  • interview
  • with the Harvard Advocate:

    "I think criticism, more often than not, completely misses the point, yes. The critical impulse, demonstrated by the tone of many of your own questions, is to suspect, doubt, tear at, and to take something apart to see how it works. Which of course is completely the wrong thing to do to art. I used to tear books apart, and tear art exhibits apart - I was an art and book critic for a few years in San Francisco - but my urge to do that was born of bitterness and confusion and anger, not out of any real need to help or edify. When we pick at and tear into artistic output of whatever kind, we really have to examine our motives for doing so. What is it about art that can make us so angry? Is it healthy to rip to shreds something created by an artist? I would posit, if I may, that that's not really a healthy impulse. Now, as far as I know, out of maybe 100 or so reviews that I've been made aware of, my own book has received only one negative example. That's pretty lucky, especially when you consider that Wallace, for example, has gotten pretty abused by some people, people who for the most part don't have the patience his work requires. But criticism, for the most part, comes from the opposite place that book-enjoying should come from. To enjoy art one needs time, patience, and a generous heart, and criticism is done, by and large, by impatient people who have axes to grind. The worst sort of critics are (analogy coming) butterfly collectors - they chase something, ostensibly out of their search for beauty, then, once they get close, they catch that beautiful something, they kill it, they stick a pin through its abdomen, dissect it and label it. The whole process, I find, is not a happy or healthy one. Someone with his or her own shit figured out, without any emotional problems or bitterness or envy, instead of killing that which he loves, will simply let the goddamn butterfly fly, and instead of capturing and killing it and sticking it in a box, will simply point to it - "Hey everyone, look at that beautiful thing" - hoping everyone else will see the beautiful thing he has seen. Just as no one wants to grow up to be an IRS agent, no one should want to grow up to maliciously dissect books. Are there fair and helpful book critics? Yes, of course. But by and large, the only book reviews that should be trusted are by those who have themselves written books. And the more successful and honored the writer, the less likely that writer is to demolish another writer. Which is further proof that criticism comes from a dark and dank place. What kind of person seeks to bring down another? Doesn't a normal person, with his own life and goals and work to do, simply let others live? Yes. We all know that to be true."

    (It's a great interview. Click the link and continue down for a spectacular rant on the idea of selling out.)

    And so I am hopeful. If you need me, I'll be in the corner reading some pretentious assertion or another. But I'll be doing it with a smile on my face, and a better understanding of myself in relation to it.

    Friday, February 03, 2006

    Another Reason to Love Life on the Fringe

    I knew before I even sat down to write this that nothing I could say would do justice to Toby Clarke's Imogen. Even as it was going on, I bemoaned its ephemerality in my head, knowing that I would never again be able to capture the spirit of this gentle little show. That's the nature of the form; Shunt's 'turg has said, "If you can write it down on a line, what's the point of doing a live performance?" I hate program and promo blurbs for this very same reason. I find it reductive to write them at all, but alas, they fall into my realm of responsibility, so at least I can maintain some control over what is and isn't fitting.

    Imogen was written by an MATP grad, so I went out of sheer curiosity. His play has made it from Edinburgh, and is a gorgeous reminder of everything that is right with the fringe theatre scene. You may have to slog through some really irresponsible rubbish, but occasionally you'll be rewarded by a gem like this.

    It's a simple story done with extraordinary care: a man loses his family and discovers that you don't have to die for your life to be over. Scenes flow into each other, memories piece themselves back together, the past and the present undulate in his head and our experience. The moments are what make this exceptional--a sudden freeze of one scene and Leo is at once making love to Amie, and the two are barely touching...he slips a ring onto her finger as she sleeps...Leo literally wanders as his mind leaves the conversation with his boss...he and Imogen are swimming through space (best movement sequence I've seen all year) fighting not to lose contact. The puppet Imogen is the triumph of this show, proving what kind of incredible humanity puppets (and their masterful manipulators--the true force behind this show ) can add to a work. The scenes between Leo and Imogen were indeed the most moving. Watching her come to life-- stomping about, coloring with crayons, climbing into her father's arms--was a pleasure.

    Everything in this show just fit. It was lovely. The performers looked so shocked to see a full house; I, on the other hand, wanted to thank them personally for sharing this remarkable play.

    Imogen continues at the Oval House through February 11, and tours from there.

    Wednesday, February 01, 2006

    The Anderson Project

    My secret pleasure these days? Listening to the post-show audience murmur as the theatre empties. Yes, that's me spying on your thoughts and observations. I'm the inside-outsider; I'm supposed to. In the past, I would get incredibly frustrated when people couldn't just let a performance sit and resonate quietly for awhile, but our nature is toward immediate judgment. I'm beginning to sympathize with that need to formulate a response and articulate your experience: It fills me with wonder to see the essence of theatricality rediscovered, when someone realizes that by virtue of the form, the content is communicated in the best possible way.

    [Ed: To Justin and all of my other casual readers, my apologies. I'm still getting the hang of this, and figuring out my audience. How apt. Anyway, The Anderson Project is a one man show, starring LePage as a number of characters involved with the eponymous commission and writing of an opera version of The Dryad by Hans Christian Anderson. The first excitement comes during a title sequence in which a hooded thug leaps onto the wall and 'graffitis' the cyclorama to reveal a portrait of Mr. Anderson--and the clever tricks continue. We see the Canadian Writer, the French contact, and the Dryad herself, all played by LePage. The staging just breathes life and energy that far surpasses the story itself. With projections, screens, invisible cables, and simple light and shadow manipulation, this one man brings an entire universe to life.]

    On the exodus from Robert LePage's Anderson Project, the patrons were aflutter (seriously) with questions of "How the fuck did he do that?" or "He was amazing. No other way to describe it." It's that magic that keeps us going to the theatre: the hope for something that will utilize its inherent beauty and imagination in a new and unusual way. What I appreciate most about the work of Mr. LePage is that he is speaking a theatrical language, but it is today's theatrical language, altered and augmented by our relationship to new and mixed media, entertainment, and art. For two hours (no interval), he kept us leaning forward in our seats, delighted by the possibilities onstage. There were surprises, suggestions, and moments of truth. I recall quoting him in a presentation I did, a haughty little venture entitled 'New Media: Expanding Our Performance Vocabulary': he said, "We were wondering how to connect poetics and dramaturgical ideas and heartfelt emotions with the new tools we have around. Technology comes in with a new vocabulary, and we're still stuttering, trying to figure out exactly how to use it."

    That presentation of mine was borne out of total frustration with the use of mixed media in scenography these days. For me, whose job is often is to cut what isn't necessary or intentional, technology can hinder more than help. The choice to use it cannot be arbitrary, especially since it is the most fluid and changing of our current scenographical methods; it has to be understood for its qualities and weaknesses. His is a welcome dexterity.

    (Not to mention the fact that I was endeared by the many self-conscious theatre references embedded in the text of the show--a 'theatre person' will write for a 'theatre audience' at times...we enjoy our inside jokes as much as the next person).

    The Anderson Project continues at the Barbican through February 18 as part of the BITE 06 Festival.