Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Pretentious or just long-winded...You decide!

I was asked to answer some interview questions for the Bellevue Community College school newspaper about our show 7 Minutes to Midnight.

In an effort for clarity I of course went for length instead...The reporter wisely broke up my interveiw and edited it down for print.

The chair of BCC said it sounded smart. I thought it might be prententious.

But hey, you decide for yourself with this unedited version!

How does this type of play differ from the plays BCC usually produces? From other plays you've written?

Most of the plays BCC has done are either well-regarded classics or important contemporary plays by modern writers. They’ve done Chekhov or Wilde or Sondheim musicals in addition to newer works like Steven Dietz. They have a track record, not necessarily at BCC, but nationally or internationally. In a way, they’ve been “road tested”.

When you’re working on a new play, whether it is a traditional process (which I’ll briefly explain) or more alternative, that luxury of the road test is not there. In some ways, this makes for a wonderful range of choices and that pioneer spirit of “no one has ever done this before”! On the other hand, you can also get daunted on whether or not it can be done, or done well, for that same reason.

Most of my plays I’ve written in the past, like Obscura or Burning Botticelli, have been developed in a traditional process, generally used in regional theaters and on Broadway. The process is like handing off a baton in a relay race…It starts with a playwright who plans and writes everything down, usually alone. Eventually there is only so much work you can do by your self and its ready for production (even though it may need some amount of rewrites). The script is then like that baton, handed off to a producer and/or director to get a production started. The baton is again handed off to designers, then to the actors culminating in a final performance where the baton is handed to the audience. Again, there may be some rewrites but generally you go into the first rehearsal with a solid script that has been worked out ahead of time (story, characters, dialogue all in good shape).

In this kind of traditional process, the text is usually the primary element, although not always. The other aspects of performance like sound, image and movement become secondary. With a play like Importance of Being Earnest where the text is not just stylistic of that period, but also witty, you want the text to primary.

But with alternative methods of theatre-making, of which there are several terms—like “devising”, “ensemble-based” or “physical theatre”, the text becomes equal with other elements of the performance such as movement, music, sound, and light. Even the idea of having some clear storyline can become less important. The form becomes open and more collaborative. it’s more difficult to create this kind of theater alone as a playwright. You need to work directly with the actors, to see their bodies moving in space and to let the actors experiment with images and sound. Many shows can fall under this category of “devised”, the most popular being The Tectonic Theater’s The Laramie Project or Mary Zimmerman’s Metamorphoses, but it also can describe many others.

Although I as director and conceiver still lead the rehearsals, it’s more like I’m guiding them down a path. I bring in story ideas, text, research and assign tasks based on that. But anyone in the cast can bring in their own research or text and we can experiment in rehearsal to see how, or if, it might fit. In this sense, using the relay race as a metaphor, the baton is not passed off, but passed back and forth, or shared between two people…at different moments the creation is happening over and over again in each rehearsal. Sometimes the audience even becomes part of that creation process.

Devising a show takes a lot of time and energy, from me and from the actors. I’ve been doing a lot of planning and gathering of ideas, images and text for a long time before even bringing the actors on board. We actually started preliminary rehearsals at the beginning of summer. We’ve spend a lot of time discussing the ideas, characters and stories, as well as doing ensemble-building exercises and games. As I add more ensemble members, I’ll have something resembling a script on paper, but even that will be shaped by the ensemble as we work and re-work the performance. It’s a lot of work but at the end of the process you have something that is truly unique to those actors in this space and time.

How are the students responding to being "builders"?

I think they have embraced the work quite well. Although I taught a lab class in the Spring, this is my first opportunity to direct at BCC and I don’t have a great familiarity with the students. The first stages of rehearsal have been us getting to know each other and building trust. Trust and creating a safe place to play is vital to this kind of work, as it is with any theatrical production. But I’ve given them some big challenges and they are engaging with the movement exercises as well as with the ideas and the material.

A lot of times in theater we get so product-oriented. This kind of work, the journey and process of discovery in rehearsals is equally, if not more important than opening night. We’re learning about ourselves as artists as well as learning about important events in U.S. and world history and how it affects us now. It’s an interesting thing to be given the freedom to explore deep issues of a personal and global nature. Every day I ask them to be creative in new ways and nudging actors out of comfort zones can be really scary, no matter your experience level. Even seasoned actors find this difficult. My hope is that their connection to the work will be more personal because they own the gestures, or they brought in a piece of text or song lyric that resonated for them.

Why is the Science Dept. involved in "building" the play?

I don’t know that I’d say they’re involved in the “building” of the play but we want their help as we create it—we’re not scientists, obviously. So we’d like to get their help with research on the subject matter of the play. We hope to get some professors to drop into rehearsals to explain some concepts.

One of the main questions the piece grapples with is what is the scientists’ responsibility towards humankind? This is tied directly to the real-life creation of the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists and The Doomsday Clock.

Basically, the Bulletin was established in 1947 by a group of scientists, most of whom worked on the Manhattan Project, and they wanted to advocate to the world that this could literally be humanity’s downfall. And they knew that others besides the U.S. would gain this knowledge and power and essentially predicted the cold war. Never before had so many people in the world been so ignorant of something that affected the entire planet. The average U.S. citizen didn’t know how destructive the bomb was, how it worked, how dangerous radiation could be, and most importantly, they had no idea how many bombs the U.S. was building or that they were going on with the next step of building the hydrogen bomb. They created the Doomsday Clock that same year as an arbitrary way of gauging how close we were to destroying ourselves. In 1947 it was set to 7 minutes to midnight (hence the title of our show). It’s moved twenty times in the past sixty years and now stands at 5 minutes. They’ve said we’re at a second nuclear age, similar to the late 1940s and we have 27,000 nuclear warheads on this planet. But how many people pay any attention to that fact and how do we even comprehend it?

So this play will jump around a bit in time and space, asking questions about what it means for us now in 2008? What was the journey of the scientists who went from trying to end a war with their invention to watching the horrors of Hiroshima and Nagasaki? And how do you resolve that in yourself? How can the actions of one person affect the world?

I know this sounds like it will be this depressing story of war and destruction, but ultimately we’re trying to find the opposite of that. We want to know; Can we hope for peace?

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