Monday, November 14, 2011

A few realizations

It's amazing how intense this play has become. When we got together for a first reading it seemed so...I don't know: funny and harmless. Now, after a few months of rewritings, draining rehearsals and tweaking, it is an intensely personal, incredibly emotional experience. Perhaps this has something to do with Dan's screams when his emotions are extracted against his will. Perhaps it's Laura, announcing the extractions with a measured, chilling voice. Perhaps it's Conni who has become incredible in the part of Cordelia Stark. She's always been very good, intensely professional, focused and graceful, but somehow, Cordelia has made her even better. I sit there in awe of her improv moments thanking my lucky stars. Mike, as the android who can be programed to become any character the emotives need, is in his element. As "The Performance Artist With No Talent" though, he channels something between Brecht and Fellini I never thought I would see on my stage.

And then there's Ellie, of whom I ask so much, whose transitions from devastating unhappiness to amazing well-being are so abrupt, she has about two seconds to adjust her character. And she does it every time, carrying the most difficult parts of the war scenes, demanding a colossal love affair from Gray, enacting moments of suburban heaven and unspeakable humiliation with equal conviction.

We spent an excruciating weekend setting lighting cues (with less than 15 instruments) until the stage looked almost the way I imagined it. What poor theatre? We got that beat. Grotowski has nothing on us. I was wondering out loud, the other day, what to call the theatre beyond "poor theatre" so we could name this thing we do every year. Catastrophic theatre? Asylum theatre? Trashcan theatre? Perhaps. It continues to amaze me how many extremely well-funded, terrible productions I've seen in the past 20 years or so. Perfect lighting systems, exquisite sound booths, money for costumes and props...and yet, at the end of the evening, you wonder why you spent two hours there instead of doing something useful...

I don't know how Jamie, with whom I've worked for the past 11 years, does it every time. I have never seen anyone so capable of improvising lighting cues the way she does. Everything is so very difficult. Money, lighting, sound -- and yet, at the end of our productions people get married or get desperate (same thing, really), or cry, or go home and spend the next few hours in uninterrupted silence. All of this has happened to us, so let's hear it for trashcan theatre, for extraordinary (and extraordinarily patient) people, for lots of work and tons of worries. Perhaps my maddening attention to detail -- the thing that keeps me awake at night when, instead of sleeping, I make lists of things that need fine-tuning -- is what saves us every time. I know people hate it during these last weeks of nightly rehearsals, but on opening night it all pays off.

I hope this happens on Saturday as well. It needs to happen, it must. I am too attached to this mad play to see it fail because of a few, insecure transitions. Let's hope I can communicate this to the cast and crew tonight. They're tired, overworked. They need me to tell them how I feel about them, but I'm not good at speeches, so I write these entries hoping they will read them and know how much I appreciate everything they do. But it's late and I have to go, so this entry will have to end abruptly, like an emotion extracted prematurely from its host.

Thursday, November 10, 2011


There comes a moment in the evolution of every play when we crash. Everything we worked on collapses. The actors are unsure of their movements, the sound man is overwhelmed, I feel like a giant failure, ask myself the same questions: what if this is the play that doesn't come together? What if this fragmentation that I see (imposed by the fractured rhythm of the scenes) is as good as it gets? What if the previous play was the best I can do? What if this is the end of the affair between me and the stage?

My sincere congratulations to people who can stage a play with complete disregard for details. Long live the non-perfectionists, the easy-goers, the "we'll get this play done in two weeks" boasters! Good for them! Live and let live. I, for one, can't get over the details, the one second delay in sound, the minimal increase in volume, the one hesitant gesture. I told the cast last night "If I want you to be merely good, you'll end up being mediocre. If I want you to be spectacular, you'll end up being very good" -- or something to that effect. I yelled a lot, not at someone in particular, but out of fear and frustration. I can't explain what happens when I watch a scene that unfolds perfectly and then there's THAT ONE THING that spoils it. It can be anything: a wrong move, two beats of silence instead of one, the wrong inflection in the voice, a missed sound cue. Whatever it is, it destroyes everything that preceded it.

Two weeks ago I was complaining: "This play is going too well, I need it to crash or it will crash on opening night." Now it's crashed and I'm sitting here wishing for a Humpty-Dumpty miracle, wanting it whole again, unfractured, beautiful.

I miss Rita terribly. In moments such as these (apparently I experience them with every production but have no memory of the fact at the end), she would always tell me "The play will be beautiful. I know it," and, somehow, that's all it would take to make me feel good about everything again. But Rita isn't here and the substitutes (I actually asked people to tell me, at regular intervals, "The play will be beautiful") don't work.

I am so afraid (as I was with The Happiness Machine) that realism is truly not my field, that the honest exchange between the characters, devoid of the usual hyperstylized quality of my previous plays, will appear somehow artificial, embarrassing, poor. Yes, poor -- as in lacking awe, a certain spectacular element. I don't know. I'm thinking of cutting the soundtrack that accompanies the only killing in the play. I want to let the actors perform the scene without any help from sound, the way this would happen in reality. But fights, killings, look clumsy in reality. (I've seen fights, never killings, but I imagine that taking a life requires effort, takes a long time, exhausts both victim and killer). Should I show the effort, the clumsiness, the truly pathetic nature of violence? I don't know. To quote Cordelia Stark (who is, in turn, quoting lines from The Maltese Falcon), "It's not always easy to know what to do."

I don't know what to do. I got my crash and now I'm contemplating it in all its splendor. "Humpty-Dumpty sat on a wall..."

I think I was so focused on healing myself with this play, of saying everything I needed to say in order to be able to move on, that I ended up writing a script for a movie. All the transitions I'm frustrated about would happen effortlessly in a film: the volume of the music in the background, the actors' whispering voices, the slow, deliberate gestures, the humanizing close-ups. I wrote a bloody movie and I'm trying to stage it as a play and it's not coming together.

But as I say that, I hear this persistent, little voice that tells me this always, always happens; that things always come together in the end; that all I need is patience and trust. And these extraordinary people I abuse every evening making them repeat a scene until they want to run screaming, do trust me. How do they perceive my meltdowns? As genuine crises or pathetic moments of hysteria?

I want to love this play again. I don't love it now, as I type this. And I want it to love me back. I want a love fest all around, and then I want to feel the rhythm of this crazy tale take over the stage, reach out, and break people's hearts. I want the last image to stay with them forever, as a reminder of what we can become when we're drained of emotions, as a reminder of what theatre can be when it escapes its own, tyrannical, rules. I want all of that, and then I want to feel the happiness I always feel at the end of each production. And then I want to sleep.

Tuesday, November 8, 2011


Our third day on the stage in a building that's going to be the death of me. How can I both love and hate it with such a passion? The space is awful and glitchy and can burst into flames at any moment. The space is open and wonderful because it allows me to discard all the rules of serious (read "deadly") theatre, one by one. I combine (shamelessly) elements of realism with touches of Strindberg, Durrenmatt and Craig. I ask the actors to be guided by the rhythm of the melody that accompanies their dialogue. The movement of the entire piece is dictated by the tension between moments of extraordinary sadness and mad bouts of comedy. I emphasize the cartoony character of I.N.S.E.C.T's personnel and the difficult humanity of the emotives.

In the play, humanity is more of a curse than a blessing. Having emotions, feeling things intensely, falling in and out of love are punishable offenses. At the end people are offered a choice: to be human (read, "a mess") or to go through life feeling nothing, protected from emotions and their misery. What would you choose? What would I choose if I had a choice?

It is difficult for me to focus entirely on details at this point (why repertory theatres ignore details almost always is a mystery to me). I have to deal with the faulty wiring, the noisy speakers, the loud neon sign that illuminates the exits, and the 250 props that somehow find their way downstage center .

One thing was confirmed today, though: I am surrounded by extraordinary people. I wrote a panicky message to Karl, KRVS's extraordinary sound engineer, and he came at the end of the day to fix all of our sound problems. I also wrote to Jamie, asking her to drop by one of these days (before the tech rehearsal on Saturday) and see how many lights are still working and what gels we need for the show. She came in today before we began rehearsal and assured me that all the lights we had for The Happiness Machine are still there.

I don't know what I did in another life to deserve these people. I don't know what I did to deserve the casts that I work with, or Susan and her paintings, or Drew and his profound understanding of structures and environments (particularly the artificial environments on the stage), or Chun who's doing sound for the first time but understands completely my need for perfectionism.

Details make the play: a particular movement that occurs on a particular musical beat; a certain inflection of the voice that anchors an entire scene; a spectacular shade of red that suggests a particular emotion, and so on. The position of the actors' hands in a moment of respiro. A delicate caress. An exaggerated walk. A sigh. A look. Everything choreographed to the second, repeated and perfected until it looks efortless, like a happy accident.

I was worried about Dan tonight. He looked rough, existential, dark. Is the character of the emotive getting to him? Mike is coming down with a cold, Ellie is overworked, Conni walked in yesterday announcing the worst day of her life. Laura...I'm not sure about Laura. This is her first play and -- I am told -- I am an acquired taste so I don't know how she feels yet. I try things out, make one demand one moment, and the opposite demand a moment later. I experiment, discard, try again. Everything is trial and error until the errors fade in the background and some new form of life -- not quite real, not entirely artificial either -- is born on the stage.

This is my refuge and my laboratory. These people are my friends and my army and we have declared war against all things ordinary. I want a theatre of extraordinary gestures and legendary love affairs. I want to create characters whose lives I envy. I want to tear down the barriers between tragedy and comedy. I want a drama that makes the public giddy and a farce that brings them to their knees.

I'm beginning to sound like Dr. Who, when he has one of those terrific end-of-the-episode monologues that create intergalactic incidents. I want to be the cause of an intergalactic incident. Then I can rest for a while.

Monday, October 24, 2011

Before the Storm

Spent the entire day yesterday working with Susan, my artist/set designer friend, on pieces for the play and for the art show. We did this for The Happiness Machine as well: a month before the play we had an art exhibit with the props and paintings that were going to be part of the set. Because my plays are basically giant art installations, the art shows work as a prologue, an introduction to the look of the play, its mood, its world.

We are going to call this exhibit Silentio. This works on several levels: first, it is part of the title of the production; second, it captures the calm (sshhhhhh....) before the storm, before the two weeks of nightly rehearsals, before the long weekends, before the moment when everything comes together and I find myself, once again, shamelessly in love with my work. I asked Mike the other day: "Is it terrible that, in the end, I'm always so in love with my productions?" He said, no. That's the only way to do it. The only reason to do it.

Playwriting (with the added element of stage direction) is one of those tricky things: on the one hand, the playwright envies the self-sufficiency of the fiction writer and the poet (all they need to complete the work is a quiet room and a desk...perhaps not even that much); on the other hand, the playwright gets to see her work come to life. It's an extraordinary feeling. And, when everything goes well, there's nothing in the world like it. True, my work begins when the work of the poet is done. My work begins when the text of the play is completed. But it's worth it every time, although every time I start a new production I doubt my sanity.

The Silentio Project is a play that makes me reevaluate everything, I'm not exactly sure why. It's a healing process, although I'm beginning to suspect it won't be without sacrifice. I have a terribly nostalgic feeling about the whole thing, as I let go and forge ahead...I've no idea where I'll stand (emotionally) on November 19 when the play opens. This (this kind of impact) has happened before, but not to me. At the end of Barbarian at the Gates, a couple who had been dating for a while decided to get married in a hurry. I remember the girl telling me: "When the play ended we both felt damaged, somehow. We needed to be together, we needed to make huge decisions. We realized we didn't have all the time in the world." Perhaps she didn't say "damaged," but that was the idea. Emotionally, they felt they had reached an impasse (the end of the affair, the beginning of the marriage...Why does the latter always imply the former?) At the end of The Dick Traces (my response to The Vagina Monologues), a man put a letter in my hand. He had written it during the intermission, pages and pages of small, handwritten text. "How did you know? How did you know how it felt? How it feels? How did you manage to put everything in a play, to show the world such raw emotion?" I still have the letter somewhere. At the end of The Happiness Machine, two relationships ended and a new one formed, a happy encounter that I still take complete responsibility for...Now it's my turn, I guess. I don't know how things will end, but when the lights fade over The Silentio Project, the world (my world) will have gone through a massive change.

I once wrote a short piece called The Science of Internal Collapse. The Silentio Project is the opposite of that: it's the science of internal healing, a way to deal with terrifying changes, a way to rediscover sanity. And yet, for the most part, this play is a comedy...Must be the 30 years I spent in a communist country: you learn how to laugh in the face of misery, you learn that the only way to deal with sadness is to laugh.

So here we are, in the days of wine and roses, working on small projects to be incorporated into the larger one, a work of massive reconstruction, a scaffolding of sorts meant to sustain the workings of one's soul. Wish me luck, my friends. Luck and patience and tenacity. I am both afraid of, and curious about the future. I once asked my lit class, "What happens when we close the pages of a book? What happens to the characters trapped inside? Do their stories continue, quietly, outside our grasp? Do we put an end to their encounter? Do we matter to them as much as they matter to us?" The class looked at me questioningly. I didn't get an answer... "We read to know we're not alone," said C.S. Lewis. But why on earth do we go to the theatre? And what will happen in the silence following the final applause?

Friday, October 21, 2011

Meditation Room

First run-through yesterday, first day for Chun, our new sound guy. Things are looking good, a little too good for comfort. I don't look for problems, but I don't like it when there are none so early in the game. I remember a similarly smooth run for Barbarian at the Gates, I remember feeling odd about it, wondering when things were going to go wrong, and then two days before the show our soundboard shut down completely. The entire thing shorted out.  Had this happened during the show, we would have had to end there -- there was nothing we could have done. But it happened before the opening night so we fixed it and, at the premiere, I spent the entire time praying nothing else would go wrong. True, Derek fractured his heels during the opening scene, but then carried on, on an adrenaline high, as if nothing had happened. Not even I knew anything was wrong until after the show. I did notice he had changed some of the choreographed steps in a particular scene, so as the public was leaving I asked him about it, and that's when he told me. He had to use a cane for weeks after the show...Good times.

There are many small transitions in The Silentio Project that I'm not sure about. There's a particular scene I find difficult to stage, a war scenario the emotives have to enact. The first part consists of all the Hollywood war cliches, with people rolling around shouting things like "Don't die on me now!" and "I'm not going to die in this hellhole!" but then the second part becomes serious as the emotives forget this is only a scenario meant to drain them of emotion. They believe in the reality of the scene, the music changes, the movements slow down...This transition is very difficult to stage. We either have to have only one soundtrack that changes from silly to serious, in which case the silly part has to be timed to the second, or we have a fade in the middle of the scene with a pause between soundtracks which makes things pretty awkward...I don't know yet what to do. The thing is, once we're on the stage, answers somehow present themselves, but we're still two weeks away from rehearsals on the stage and I need to find a solution now.

At this point I work mostly on the emotives who, with the constant change of scenarios, need to be both consistent (the way, underneath it all, an actor still retains an identifiable personality, a certain manner of speaking, certain voice inflections, etc.) and completely different, depending on the characters they play for I.N.S.E.C.T's experiments.

In parallel with the story of the two emotives (played by Dan and Ellie), there's a love story developing between one of I.N.S.E.C.T's personnel, Cordelia Stark (played by Conni) and her android helper (played by Mike). It's both comic ("I can't trust men," Cordelia says at some point, "I can't even trust machines shaped like men!") and tragic, but it's very important for that argument about solitude I want to make. How lonely must Cordelia be to fall for her own creation, to expect the "machine" to reciprocate her feelings, to lose her job in order to save her imaginary romance? But then again, aren't all the people we fall for partly our creations? How much reality is there in our perception of those close to us? In a way, we all live in large, invisible laboratories, toiling away at this or that image which, once completed, we cherish as real...Who truly knows anybody's thoughts, anyway?

There is something about The Silentio Project that makes me want to reevaluate everything about the small world that surrounds me. This triggers contradictory emotions: a slight sadness at the thought of possible misreadings, but also an intense feeling of accomplishment...of serenity. At the end of the day (at the end of the play?), I know exactly who I am, what I want, what I'm capable of. Are my readings of people imaginary? Have I invented relationships, like Cordelia? Perhaps. But unlike her, and unlike the emotives whose goal is so narrow (escape) that, once they accomplish it, they're incapable of further action, I can see clearly ahead of me. The internal exile (inside our personalized laboratories) is only tragic if our image of ourselves is also an invention. That, I believe, is the mistake everybody makes in Silentio: the characters depend on other beings to complete their fantasies, to make it from one day to the next. At their core, however, they don't know who they are and what they can accomplish alone.

Silentio is a much more physical play than The Happiness Machine, and yet, because of all the things I've just talked about, it needs to be...I don't know. Mellifluous. Serene. I have to figure out the rhythm, but I think it's the rhythm of those as yet unsolved transitions that will shape the piece, not the rhythm of the actual scenes. At the end, the public has to understand both the tragedy (we depend on other people to build an image of ourselves) and the (happy? serene?) silence that follows such a discovery. I have to find that rhythm in the silence that slowly builds inside me. Ssshhhhhhhh....

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

The Silentio Project

So here we are, a year later, working on the last play of this series -- I think of Barbarian at the Gates, Urmuz and The Happiness Machine as related stylistically -- called The Silentio Project. Slightly disappointed by the choice of the team behind Dr. Who, who decided to spell Lake Silencio with a "c" not a "t." What does Dr. Who have to do with my play? A lot, as it happens. Most of my soundtrack consists of Dr. Who songs. Also, this is my first attempt at sci-fi. But instead of shiny things and gadgets that twinkle and make funny little sounds, I decided to find inspiration for my technology in the past. Sci-fi is such a nostalgic genre. "The year was 2000 and we were all finally equal..." You know what I mean. All this nostalgia for things we've never had. All this looking back at a time of illusory, democratic, as far as I'm concerned, a sci-fi set should be populated with objects from the past: old phones, old instruments, old souls. We took this concept pretty far: the characters' mail is brought by carrier pidgeons; every single "technical" maneuvre is, in fact, a simple, manual gesture; the complex extraction and classification of emotions (more about this later) is done by hand while the actual emotions (images drawn on parchment paper) are attached with clothes pins to a simple pulley system.  Ancient. Rudimentary. Awesome...and cheap (let's not forget there's no budget for this, as usual).

In terms of the idea itself, The Silentio Project evolved out of the last monologue in The Happiness Machine (hence the rather similar titles). There, Larry Tarkowsky spoke of a society of the future, "a little short on feeling," who tries to deal with an increasingly mad world. In Silentio, I decided to show the experiments that lead to the creation of such a society and so The Institute for the National Supression of Emotion through Combined Technologies (also known as I.N.S.E.C.T.) was born. The proportions of the Institute are problematic: the "campus" can be as big as a city or a planet. Nobody knows because nobody has ever been able to find an exit, "the end" of the Institute proper. Both INSECT's personnel and the "emotives" (the subjects INSECT experiments on) have never seen the light of day outside the cells and corridors that form their everyday landscape. That's all they know. Until two of the emotives rebel and take over the Institute in an attempt to save the last (although in the context of the play it's not clear whether love is an emotion, a feeling or a chemical imbalance).

The emotives are under strict orders to watch a lot of old movies and programs on TV and learn the language and expressions of emotions presented there. Once they are familiar with several vocabularies (the language of noir, horror, musicals and romantic comedies), Dr. Tait, the director of the Institute, presents them with a scenario. They act it out as a play. When the line between reality and illusion is crossed and the emotives...emote, the scenario is paused and the respective emotions are extracted.

Thus INSECT learns more and more about the human soul, about what makes people tick, about where emotions are "localized" (we took a lot of liberties with the workings of the human body here) and they use everything they know to create a flat-lined, docile society no longer (they believe) prone to suicide.

That's the premise. Naturally, nothing goes according to plan. INSECT seems to have been abandoned by the very organization (the Regents) who ordered it into being. That's why everything falls apart: equipment, surveillance, morale, etc.

I'm still adding scenes, changing scenes, working on instinct. If The Happiness Machine was personal because of the death of my father which triggered the entire project, this play is personal because it comes from a place of extreme solitude. I've had a few health scares this year and, at the end of it all, I came to a conclusion I should have come to a long time ago: not only do we die alone, but we live alone as well. I don't mean that literally: of course we share our homes, our lives with other people, but inside, at the core of everything, we are alone. This came as a shock. The fact that the epiphany did not completely depress me proved equally shocking. If I had the money (will I ever have the money?) to stage this properly, the emotives would be kept inside giant glass cages so they would be able to see each other but not communicate. Torture: never to be able to say anything to the person next to you. That's the image at the heart of the play, that's what I've learned: that we can never really talk to anyone, explain our emotions to anyone because we're all wrapped inside our own perceptions, our own entitlements and righteous other words, we all live inside our own giant glass cages. And nothing penetrates.

I hope The Silentio Project will communicate this, with the usual humor that my plays rely on. The point is to depress people while they're having a good laugh. It's a contradictory emotion I strive for because, as far as I'm concerned, it's the best definition of a human being that I could find. Where did I find it? In Kafka, of course: "To put it precisely, you're desperate. To put it still more precisely, you're very, very happy."

More later.