Saturday, September 5, 2015

The Crisis/Opportunity Scenario

The Trilogy of Unforeseen Adventures (yes, I just made this up, although the idea that Noir, Glissando, and Quijote belong together has not been a secret for some time), has always been about change – shifts in cast, mood, and interactions; in production titles, and focus. So things were bound to change in the Quijote project as well.

It has always been (and it has become increasingly) difficult for me to bring new people in the otherwise self-renewing membership of The Milena Group. On the rare occasions when I do it, there is always a risk: that I will have to change my methods to accommodate well-established but often tired ways of giving life to a play; and that the short amount of time we have to work together is not enough to build the absolute trust one needs to produce something memorable, not a threepenny production (my apologies, Herr Brecht, I don’t mean you). 

At times, the risk pays off splendidly. Not always, though. By the time a bunch of exhausted grad students and I meet for the first rehearsal on a weeknight, they’ve taken so many seminars and workshops with me, or in some cases (hello, Susan!) we’ve finished each other’s sentences for so many years, that we can be honest with one another. They can tell me they’re at the end of their wits (it won’t change anything, but it helps to complain), and I can ask them to do strange things, read new monologues, enact fragments of unfinished scenes, come together in groups or plop on chairs at random without explaining the necessity for any of this. I know when they're tired. I know when they're hungry. I know how far I can push and when I should stop. I always have a reason for what I do, but because the text is being written (mostly in my head) as rehearsals unfold, everything is uncertain and tentative. They know this. I teach this. I talk about the courage of uncertainty all the time which is why every new show of The Milena Group is a meditation on the nature of risk and failure, but also an adventure. A real adventure, not a ready-to-wear one, like something one has done a hundred times before. There are things that will always obsess me: the contrast between agitation and perfect stillness; between Western and Eastern theatre practices; between silence and dialogue, between laughter and tragedy, between the comfort and the complete unsettling of an audience. These are things present in everything I’ve done. But every play finds a new way of approaching these dilemmas, and when someone walks in from the outside, unaware of this ongoing discourse, there is a chance that I won’t be able to explain what interests me. 

On rare occasions (two in the past 15 years to be more exact), a potential new member of The Milena Group quits after the first rehearsal. (This is one of the reasons I never audition people for plays; the first rehearsal serves as an audition). When this happens, I am briefly saddened, but never surprised. What we do takes courage and there is always a real chance of failure. I always appreciate the honesty of such immediate withdrawals because I’d rather work with what an actor once called “fearless fools” than cautious professionals. I’ve talked, many, many times here of the increasingly shaky lines that separate our definitions of professionalism, so I won’t repeat myself, but I am a little tired of explaining that these productions are my research, and that the process resembles that of writing an essay on the nature of theatre: that there are works I quote, and theatre practitioners whose methodologies I implement; and theatre theorists whose vision I respect and sometimes subvert to see if it still holds true; and that I am, perhaps, too old, and definitely too rebellious to be told that there is only one way of working on a play, the “right” way that insures success. On the other hand, I hate making people unhappy, so a departure is always preferable to stoicism.

Looking back over the past 15 years I think I can say quite truthfully that I conceive of every play as if it were my last. For a while, I used to say it: this is the last play, because I couldn’t imagine a world beyond the production I was working on. But now I know it: I direct every play as if I’m going to die tomorrow and I can’t leave behind a crowd-pleasing mediocrity. I’m also a little tired of repeating this: there’s nothing wrong with crowd-pleasing mediocrities. Peter Brook says it: “every audience has the theatre it deserves,” and I’m all for happy-endings, and stock gestures, and facile laughter, and people kicking each other in the bottom on the stage, and well-lit scenes, and perfect diction, and all the agitation that reassures audiences already convinced of this fact, that theatre hasn’t evolved at all since the time of the vaudeville. I’m all for it, without the slightest irony. I just don’t have to do it because I have no interest in it. 

So let’s backtrack and talk of the Quijote project and the role of the Old Hidalgo. What was he rejecting in his madness? Reality. What was his madness? A critique of reality. Why? Because he loved reality and belonged to it, but couldn’t see it crumbling without protest…so he took refuge in fiction until reality decided to stop all that nonsense and mend itself. That’s how I feel about academia. That’s how I feel about theatre. The only people who should criticize what Artaud called “the petrified” nature of theatre are the people intimately connected to the field, not because they despise it, but because they’re invested in it to the point of delirium (see Barthes’ “I’ve earned the right to speak deliriously”).

So as we speak, the Quijote project is changing, as I rewrite the play to express the same ideas, but in the absence of the main character as I’d conceived of him initially. And as I do so, the movement of the text becomes clearer, and the image of a young Quijote rises from the rubble. Another one of my unshakable beliefs:  particularly in theatre, every crisis is an opportunity.

When I was in grad school, I lost 50 pages of my Master’s thesis, a revenge tragedy on the subject of Dracula, inspired by my daily interactions with new people: “You’re from Transylvania? How strange. I didn’t think Transylvania really existed.” I remember staring at the black screen of my clearly defunct computer thinking, I’ve lost an entire act. I can’t do this again. I don’t have the strength. I can’t remember the best lines, the way the characters interacted. And then it happened: in the face of fake tragedy (is a rewrite really a tragedy? Only a few years before, I was trying to not get shot during the Romanian revolution), I discovered I liked change. I sat down and wrote a new act, a better act – much clearer in vision, much more persuasive -- a slicker version of the initial one, fueled not by anger or panic, but confidence. If I can restructure my argument from a completely different point of view, that means I have a better grasp of the play.

The crisis/opportunity scenario has repeated itself, in various forms, throughout my career. Every single time, I end up with a better turn of events – a real adventure. Perhaps this has something to do with my life as a writer and the process of endless revision to which I subject every text. Perhaps it’s not that, but the thought that the “fearless fools” and I are ready to unsettle every boundary. I don’t know, and it doesn’t matter, because during a six move checkmate, a young and foolish Hidalgo will still meet Alice for a last adventure. The Mad Hatter said so, and I, for one, believe him utterly.