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.