Thursday, August 28, 2008

Getting Lost

[Photo from Painted Snake in a Painted Chair, Talking Band Theatre, La Mama Theatre 2003]

Music is a very important, integral part of the work—we view it as one of the “voices”, including the visual imagery, text, etc. A number of members in the company have musical backgrounds, particularly Ellen and I. She studied flute, piano, and composition. I play clarinet. The music is played live by the performers. From the beginning the company was exploring poetry. We got right away into the music of language, and were really interested in the crossover between language and music. Music is part of the texture of the piece.

I’m interested in that bridge between science and arts…there was a time when the science and arts did not have a separation. Galileo and Kepler both wrote about music as well as science. It was all seen as part of the pursuit of natural laws.

(From my interview with Paul Zimet, Talking Band Theatre—and formerly worked with Chaikin in the Open Theater)

Okay, so what is “devising” theatre?

Or physical theater, aka ensemble-based work or shall we say, experimental theatre?

How does someone like Mary Zimmerman make Metamorphoses or Anne Bogart make bobrauschenbergamerica? How does Ping Chong create Blind Ness, or Moises Kaufman make The Laramie Project?

Here's some rudimentary thoughts on the subject.

A lot of people have been asking about my show in the fall, 7 MINUTES TO MIDNIGHT, and I always stumble slightly when I describe the process behind it…It’s a show about the Doomsday Clock, I say…

"The what?"

It’s an arbitrary clock created by a group of atomic scientists in 1947 to gauge how close the world is to blowing itself up with atomic bombs (aka Doomsday). Every year they meet deciding how many minutes closer or further we are from annihilation. It was set at 7 minutes to midnight in 1947 and has moved several times since then. Right now we’re at 5 minutes to midnight.

It's also about the Nevada testing site, which I used to drive past many times a year when I drove from Vegas to Reno...And what the desert literally and figuratively means...

"But what’s it about?"

It’s about scientists responsibility to mankind…or about how one person’s action’s affect the world…

"No, what’s the story?"

Ah, see the linear story does not quite exist yet…There is a story there, of scientists building a bomb, winning a war, realizing what they’ve done when the bomb is dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the government lying to the American people, the Cold War, etc. That's the literal linear history that can be explored.

There is also embedded in our show the story of Kronos (or Saturn) who devours his children for fear of being usurped.

Perhaps you know the infamous Goya painting?

I don’t know why, I just think this idea/image is pertinent.

There are also some folk/country songs and songs of the era of the late 1940s.

None of it may connect to each other. At least, overtly.

This show may be like a pastiche--mixing of performance styles.

But the truth is, I'm not sure what the show will actually become. We have yet to start building it. Unlike plays written solely by me, I have no pre-conceived or detailed notion of how the end product will look. I have some ideas, of course, but nothing fixed. The core members of the ensemble are still doing research. We’re still talking about the ideas we want to explore. We haven’t even start playing in the rehearsal room to create the characters.

But let’s back up a bit.

The traditional process of making a play (ie playwriting) usually begins with a solitary playwright, sitting alone at his/her desk, writing down the basic plot and characters. He/she describes the setting, time and place, writes the action and dialogue. This can take anywhere from a few weeks to a few years. Then the script is rewritten again and again before getting a reading or a staged reading and then a production. Sometimes it goes straight from initial draft to opening night, but that’s rare. In essence, the script is handed off to a director and actors after the playwright has been grappling with it for whatever length of time. In any original production, though, usually the playwright is still working with that director and actor to polish and perfect the script as much as possible before that first time the audience experiences it.

This type of process is primarily text-centered. The script and the words on the page became the most important element.

Most of my plays have been written this way, including my latest, THE ALBATROSS, which is very traditional playwriting with a linear storyline. The most anti-traditional play I've written, BURNING BOTTICELLI, is more epic in form and non-linear and tosses around a lot of ideas, but it was also built primarily by me at my desk--though rewritten extensively with the NYC cast I had at the time.

In “devising”, the script is created primarily in rehearsal. The script consists of not just the spoken word, which is important, but also physical movements, songs, images, and/or video. In this case, the body can be text. The focus is more on the actor/audience relationships. It can be experimental because the main idea behind this kind of theater is to question the idea of theater—to ask why this structure, why this form, why these words, what happens when we do this, etc?

The idea for the play can begin with one person, such as the “conceiver” or director (suck as Anne Bogart or Mary Zimmerman), or it can be a joint project initiated by a group (such as the Open Theater or Theatre de Complicite). But usually, there is someone who takes some form of lead, even in the most autonomous working ensemble. Someone has to start making decisions of what to leave in and take out before performing for an audience.

In my case, the central ideas and questions are coming from me and ultimately will be shaped by my lens. But I will not be writing this play alone like I usually do, which is quite welcome. Instead, I bring in these thoughts, images, props, songs, text, whatever and mix it up, like making a stew.

We play. In the playing we create. Just like kids playing in a sandbox, really.

When I first met with my core ensemble, I laid out a very simple map in these terms, that our process would have three phases:

Phase 1: Collecting (Research, questions, brainstorming)
Phase 2: Testing
Phase 3: Shaping

We begin with questions and these questions will lead us to gathering notes, text, images, sounds, music, and whatever else might stimulate our imaginations and thoughts centered around those questions.

In the rehearsal room, we take what we have learned and share with the rest of the ensemble. We play with them dramatically, with exercises, with character studies, improvising and trying out some of our ideas.

In the shaping phase, we start pulling the show together and making the difficult decisions about what we are trying to say or do with the audience. This could also be called the “whittling away” phase.

In some respects, this process is not so dissimilar from traditional theater. It's pretty evident that each playwright has their own distinctive process (Albee writes a play vastly different than Churchill). So then its also clear that each "devisor" of theatre has their own process, as well.

But it's writing. As a group. Collaboratively. Writing theatre. Sometimes writing "on your feet", sometimes collecting text, sometimes originating text.

Now, those three phases makes it all sound very systematic, but the truth is, it won’t be. These phases will all blend into each other. We’ll still be gathering notes in the testing phase, still be testing some things in the shaping phase, etc. And as with charting any course via any roadmap, there will be detours and side roads, distractions and perhaps a flat tire. We will lose our way. There will be times when we will be speeding right along at 65 mph and other times when its only 15 mph. It is the nature of the process.

But as Chaikin says:

We must be able to go somewhere else—where, we don’t know. The danger here is that we will get lost…Plan on it. Count on it.

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