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.