Friday, November 15, 2013

In Reach

Rereading some of these entries, I realize that they look like the work of a bipolar personality. Utter despair is followed by extreme happiness which is, in turn, followed by doubt, hope, neurosis and serenity and then the cycle begins again, like a successful but exhausting run of Six Characters in Search of An Author.

Fear not: I am neither medicated nor pathological. I simply narrate the course of events, the paratext that surrounds every production worth a damn (deadly theatre has no paratext because mediocrities never agonize over their work…And did I just pay myself another large compliment? Yes, yes I did)

Until a play finds its rhythm, the work is tedious, agonizing. I don’t know what other people do, but I work in circles. I establish large patterns in the beginning, block scenes loosely, let things go (laches prise!) and then, in narrower and narrower circles, I go back, work on details, change the tempo, adjust a gesture, a few seconds of choreography, work on the delivery of a particular line, extend or diminish a pause, a beat, a silence…Details matter. Details make or destroy a play. This is where we are now: the detail stage.

So where did this play begin? With my need for a change after two years of theatrical silence. I’d just watched Vanya on 42nd Street again and I wanted to try that rehearsal-not-quite-show thing, where actors wear their street clothes and there isn’t an actual set, and props are minimal, and people just sit around a table and talk. I’d done monster productions, 17 people-two-act-3-hour-marathon plays with great lighting.  I wanted to work small, as Night says in the play, “like those calligraphers who fit 12 volumes of Proust on the back of a postage stamp.”

That’s when I met K. again (a little while after his initial disappearance). That’s when C took my class. That’s when I looked at them together and knew that I had found my characters.

Non sequitur. Here are a few things that drive me mad:
-the foolish idea that “actors do.” Why? Why do they have to “do” something all the time? Why can’t they just sit and talk? Because that would be boring? That’s only if they have boring conversations. I’m mourning the lost art of conversation. I drink to its defunct memory. I had forgotten how comforting it could be until K and I started talking. There’s something very “old world” about K, his views, his rhythm, his love affair with language.

-The lack of uncertainties. I remember reading Peter Brook and feeling like I had found my home, particularly when he describes the moment he stood before a group of actors and had the courage to confess that he wasn’t sure of anything. The worst plays I’ve seen were directed by people who left nothing to chance. It took me years to say things like “I don’t know what I want, but I know what I don’t want, and when I see it I’ll let you know.” To put it in simple terms: a group of actors staring at you at the beginning of a production waiting for the ultimate stage direction can be intimidating. I learned to get over that. I look at the play, I sense its rhythm, and I keep chipping away at it as if it were a block of marble that needs to become (slowly, slowly) a thing of beauty, until a “silhouette” emerges out of darkness (“The shadows are as important as the light”). I don’t know when this will happen exactly (it always happens before the show); I don’t know how I’m going to go about it, but somehow I manage to communicate the images in my head, and (somehow) people who’ve never been on a stage before and have never worked on a play, understand what I ask of them and become who I need them to be. It’s an odd process – I never know how it happens or when. It just does.

- the need to explain (again and again) why I like to have texts on the stage, and microphones, and visible cables and a (visible) sound guy in the background. I’ve been doing it for more than a decade here. Why do I have to keep explaining it? (Because new people come to see our productions every time) Ok, then, here’s the explanation: I like the backstage feel; I like to show the process that helps a play become itself, I like to expose the inner mechanisms of a production, to show where it started (text), to trace its evolution. Everything that’s usually hidden in the background, I place in the foreground because that’s what interests me: the process not just the final result.

So where are we now? Ah, yes: the detail stage.
-where C needs to perfect (and sustain) many little things so as to be entirely splendid. I’m not sure if she resents the process or the long hours (perhaps both), but I am sure that ultimate splendor justifies any means…
-where E, on a good day, is other-worldly, superbly restrained, and graceful and, on a bad day, merely good. It’s not a bad problem to have, but I’m an only child and “merely good” doesn’t cut it.
-where K’s performance, throughout the evening, continues to look like a seismic chart, with moments of extraordinary beauty following episodes of total collapse.

At the end of the evening we gather, briefly, to discuss the evening’s performance, plan a few changes, make a list of props (and snacks) for the next day. Sometimes, inspired by the rhythm of those scenes whose stark beauty overwhelms me, I rush to hug K and tell him how far he’s come since that first rehearsal. As always, he disengages quickly and runs away, distressed by my attempt at contact. Later, he claims the gesture to be playful, part of Night’s persona. One day I might believe him. Not today. Despite our on-going collaboration, I’ll never get close enough to him to tell him how much this means to me, how grateful I am, how sorry I am I have to subject him to such a drastic schedule. Even when I do put all of this into words, the communication happens on his terms, like a potential harmful ray deflected at the last moment. And when that happens I turn to Night, the imaginary one, who always welcomes me in his imaginary space. Perhaps that is where I belong.  

Seven days until the show. Then six, five, four, three, two…
Noir: A Love Story is about to begin.