Friday, October 24, 2008

Banging my head and the beat goes on...

I was talking to my really smart wife yesterday at dinner before rehearsal, whining and moaning about how hard my process for this show has been…

She listens to me whine and moan a lot, so she’s used to it. In fact, she adds her support and help by sending emails of encouragement (and sometimes she sees more value in my work than I do..)

Rest assured, the show is going to be good and like nothing that's been seen before in some ways, that's for sure. The performers are great and the script is good, if a bit raw, and the design will be pretty interesting.

What has been difficult and challenging for me specifically is that the purpose of this show was to really try to do work differently, writing and directing a show and re-making things in rehearsal. Maybe it’s because I’m a Leo but I have a personality flaw of a big ego and like everything to revolve around me and my ideas. This does not serve devising and alternative theater all that well (though it works for Richard Foreman, I think).

And I don't want this show to be like other traditional plays. Which makes things difficult, because you narrow the kinds of plays you can compare it to.

Then I wonder if devising theater is really my calling, or if I should just write and direct like some modern-day Brecht (also a megalomaniac who liked to play guitar—and actually thought he could teach Kurt Weill a thing or two…Which would be like me trying to tell Bono how to write a song.)

I’ve usually had a much more developed script and dialogue/character/actions are much more dictated by my original idea. This process has been me letting go of a lot of that to create space to play in the rehearsal room and work directly with the ensemble. It requires me to listen to the ensemble in a much more active way and then figure out how to rewrite (either on the spot or back home at the keyboard).

And I like this more open-ended process, but man, its like banging my head up against a wall, over and over. I’m much better at thinking through things on paper, writing them out. This process has tapped into my instinctual choices much more than I’m used to and it’s a little unnerving.

It's good, but everything still feels a bit raw.

Traditional theater is so much easier…Write a play, give it to a producer or director, hand it off and let them deal with it. Make it a single unit-set in a realistic setting (like an apartment in Ballard, say) with characters we all know and have seen on the street. Rewrite as necessary and at your leisure to make it all smooth, polished and safe. Easy. Comfortable and palatable.

I have GODS and SCIENTISTS and ATOMIC BOMBS and characters play badminton and then break into song FOR NO APPARENT REASON, because it’s not really a musical, but there is music…There are different theatrical styles, various locations, spanning over a time period from creation until now.

When I describe the show to people they usually say, "Wow, you have a lot going on in that."

Yes. Probably too much. Like always.

But my smart wife asked me, “What are the parts of the show that you really like and why?”

I say my favorite parts right now are all the parts that don’t have anything to do with the Doomsday Clock, which was the premise of the show and hence the title. My favorite scenes right now are the various versions of the myth of Kronos. I like all that examination of family as seen through that prism. It’s not that I don’t like the Doomsday Clock stuff, but when I’m looking at the atomic bomb stuff I’m more fascinated by the Boy/Girl scenes or the Nightmare monologue than the historical representation of what the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists do. The facts and figures don’t mean anything to me. The truth of perpetuation of violence feels real, and that resonates on a political and personal level.

Also, those scenes really feel like they’ve been created with and for the ensemble. So they shine in a unique way where the other stuff just seems like pieces of text I cobbled together from research (which basically it is).

I guess I’m trying to hone in on what excites me in this show and get rid of all the rest.

This is why I’d really like more time…

The thing is that I think the show works well when it juxtaposes the myth of Kronos with the story of the atomic age, like two ideas bashing against each other (or maybe its not juxtaposition but rather a dialectic—a dialogue of ideas—I get them confused).

One thing illuminates the other. Ideally.

Feeling lost in this process, I reached out to another writer/director whose work I really admire, Young Jean Lee. She had a show come through here in Seattle at On The Boards called SONGS OF THE DRAGONS FLYING TO HEAVEN. I was really impressed with the show and have been hearing a lot about her as an artist for a long time (in fact, I even saw her perform as an actor with the National Theater of the United States of America way back many years ago at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn). She is a member of 13P, a playwrights production group in NYC, studied with Mac Wellman, and has been doing her own thing of writing/directing for a long time.

She is currently working on her next show, SHIPMENT, about race. Check out her website here because she has a really interesting blog about her process and the show.

In fact, on her blog, I found this little list of advice she received from some other smart theater person about her work. I think it’s so great and applies to all kinds of theater-making, traditional or alternative, so I’m going to post it here:

- first of all, I admire what you do. your work is consistently brave,
provocative, disarmingly honest, conflicted, disturbing, and funny;
and I'd love to work with you on something somehow someday
- do not be offended: it will harm no one except you
- Foreman gives a suggestion in 'Unbalancing Acts' to address the one person in the audience - even if that person exists only in your imagination! - who is: A. smarter than you and B. totally gets what you are doing
- assume the audience is very intelligent, and then work hard to keep them guessing what is really going on
- encourage the performers to harbor secret throughlines, and to own & savor everything they do
- never reveal your entire hand at once
- be cunning
- keep the audience in a state of mystery as to what is genuine and what is not
- however, disregard any advice that is not useful or interesting to you
- examine your impulses and take care not to reject advice out of
pride nor fear
- tell your truth, the universe needs honesty
- and finally: don't let the bastards get you down"

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