Sunday, October 18, 2015

The Meta-Ghost

Whenever I have to stand before a group of people and, within 20 minutes, tell them what I do (see the format of the academic conference), one of two things happens: I either go slightly over the allotted time and show production photos and videos, read from the blog, explain the genesis of the project, and treat the session as I would a recruitment event (please join the Milena Theatre Group; we won't lower your IQ), or do the exact opposite, and finish quickly, going briefly over the main points and then waiting for the whole thing to be over so I can leave. I'm not exactly sure what makes me choose one scenario or the other. For the most part it has to do with the speakers before me, with the audience, with my degree of exhaustion and, maybe, other small things.

The conference I just returned from prompted a combination of the two scenarios: I felt enthusiastic enough, but finished early because I could not get over the previous speaker's deadening commentary on an otherwise superb, completely silent, slow performance piece. Later, when she also said that "performance does not create its own space" my suspicions were confirmed. It also didn't help that the conference took place in the loudest part of New Orleans and, to be articulate, I need to hear myself think; and that, half way through the presentation, it occurred to me that maybe a third of those present knew what I was talking about when I mentioned Quijote, Kean, Camino Real, or Six Characters in Search of An Author. That's when I realized the rather strange place I (and, by extension, the Milena Group members) occupy. We do neither pure research (a clinical discourse disconnected from the object of its analysis by the writer's usually acknowledged unfamiliarity with the stage), nor do we do entertainment. We occupy the space in between, and treat each production as an endless revision of an intimate critique.

For me this means revision upon revision of the script - the subject of much affectionate mockery during rehearsals - with an understanding that revision means re-vision, a re-imagining, re-shaping of the original idea until the play finds its rhythm, and I know exactly what I want to say and how I want to say it.

So let's look back at the trilogy. Noir: A private eye (or private I) falls in love with someone he believes to be the Angel of Death because he can't tell the difference between reality and fantasy. Glissando: a playwright/director can no longer distinguish between his cast and his characters. Q: an actor haunted by his previous roles is not sure whether the people he interacts with exist in reality or only in his mind. You see the pattern: all these plays are structured around the Quijote syndrome: the inability to distinguish between reality and make-believe. So what do I want to say with the Quijote project? Things get a little complicated here. I want to tell the story of Kean, the actor. The way I see it, his backstory is this: at the top of his game, Kean loses it, has a nervous breakdown on stage. Afterwards, every time he steps before an audience he lives in fear of a repeat performance. The stage (his refuge) has betrayed him, so he takes it out on theatre, rages against it, blames it for everything. But what about the ghosts he sees? What about his tense interactions with his director? What about Alice? The only way the script can maintain an internal logic while all the characters surrounding Kean play many, many parts (The Director is also the Red Queen, and also part of the Quixotic Chorus; Alice is both sweet, the Knight's lost little girl, and treacherous and manipulative as the host of Wonderland's radio show, and so on), is for Kean to be dead at the beginning of the play. Remember Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead? Yes, that scenario. So Kean is dead, and doesn't know it, and all the characters around him try to open his eyes to the truth - like when the White Rabbit, stumbling over Kean's resting body, says, "Halt! A corpse!" - but Kean doesn't listen because he's more interested in blaming others for his failure, and unable to face the fear at the heart of his defeat. Fear and art, fear and its impact on art and the artist - my longtime obsession.

I remembered, the other day, another favorite quote from Eco's Name of the Rose. It's an exchange between someone I don't remember and the main character, a proto-Sherlock Holmes. "What terrifies you most in purity?" asks the forgettable fellow. And the Sherlock character replies, "Haste." I've loved this exchange for decades, for about as long as I've loved Quijote. And remembering this I understood why slow motion (the opposite of haste), and endless revisions, and months not weeks of rehearsal are necessary to what I do; because I hate haste - immediate, impulsive decisions - with a passion.

Another realization I had on the way home (so this was a productive conference after all), was that the reason I want to say a million different things in this play -- everything about theatre, and love, and fellow-feeling, and rhythm, and communication, and buffoonery, and adventure, and death -- is because the Quijote contains all the germs of all the genres and all the stories that were ever told. Death, Love, Adventure. The same thing, really. Or maybe - theatre.

A mad, mad play, this is shaping up to be, and I love it as much, or maybe a little more, than all the other plays because it is disjointed, and allows theatre to question life and vice versa, and lets me put together, inside a now coherent frame, all the stories I've ever cared about.

At the end of the play, with the help of the Chorus, the Director/Angel of Death reveals to Kean that all the characters surrounding him are both real and imaginary, and that because he died on stage, he is forever tied to it, a ghost haunted by ghosts.

Kean, the meta-ghost. Haha -- We've really done it now.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015

Q: A Tragedy

“I have a strong propensity in me to begin this chapter very nonsensically, and I will not balk my fancy.--Accordingly I set off thus:”(Lawrence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman)

I like beginnings. I like starting new projects, new productions, layering texts, finding my way out of the fictional woods. The Quijote project – assembled, subverted, reassembled, and forever hopeful – has finally found its shape. I've found the perfect beginning, which means the production’s slightly manic rhythm makes sense now, as the adventure gallops towards its inevitable (but also perfect) end.  
An observation: I love looking at close-ups of the actors’ faces. The rehearsal photos often capture their expressions, or a gesture, the position of a hand, the arch of an arm, the head thrown back in a moment of delight. I love that. These are movements that happen naturally, that no amount of dogged work will trigger, because they happen spontaneously, in that obscure, and impossible to define space where theatre begins, in absolute freedom from narrow-mindedness and fear (have you noticed how often the two go together...?)

This Friday, with Dulcinea and Sancho (or Millie Mae and the Mad Hatter – as you wish), I’m going to New Orleans to talk about the evolution of the Quijote project at the Society for Comparative Literature and the Arts. It’s a joyous occasion to connect with past Milena Group members who now teach at other universities, and introduce the Group and its work to a new public. We’ll read a few scenes, I’ll talk about the crisis/opportunity scenario, and then show this film that captures the mood of the whole piece. While speaking, I’ll imagine the final version of our exemplary tale, with masks, and costumes, and  lights, and a completed score composed specifically for the production – the end of the Death- Love-Adventure trilogy. And as I have a strong propensity to begin very nonsensically, I will not balk my fancy, and accordingly,  I’ll  set off thus: