Friday, November 13, 2015

Kean, the Magician

Tonight, as I watched the actors peel the tape off their faces again (hello, wireless mics taped at the jawline!), as I watched them ignore the pain (just as a fun weekend experiment, try taping a mic to your face when you’re sporting a beard), and remove the white face paint that turns them into the friendly inhabitants of a theatre purgatory, I thought of the strange days I live every time I do a play, and how I take everything for granted. 

It’s only when I think about it that I realize the beauty of this strangeness, the fact that most people do not spend their evenings staging spectacular fights at the foot of improvised windmills; do not carry shopping lists that say “batteries, eyeliner, milk, combat boots, hair spray, sword, chalk, pink camo rag;” do not wake up in the middle of the night with the perfect solution to a scene that, only a few hours before, seemed impossible.

It’s still a mystery to me how every play finds its rhythm eventually, a rhythm imposed by the image with which I begin every production, but also by the way the members of each cast move together, complete each other’s gestures, and come to depend on each other’s impulses. I never know how to communicate this rhythm because, in the beginning, I don’t know what it is. Take this trilogy: conceived initially as a radio play, Noir had a sparsity of movement I’d never tried before. Like all my plays, it was an experiment. I wanted to see if I could create an enormously powerful character who would never move, and who would control the other characters’ actions through the sheer force of her will. And so Angelica, the Angel of Death, was born. She walked on stage as in a trance, sat down, wreaked havoc, claimed a life, and then left, dancing slowly in the rhythm of an intoxicating melody. She never got up once during a 75 minute performance. At the end, and many months after the show, people told me how vulnerable they felt before her, how much her presence intimidated them, how powerless they felt. 

Of course, I have Beckett to thank for this need for immobility as an expression of containment and will: I like actors to do nothing but be. It takes a while to persuade actors used to constant movement to be completely still. Stillness is an art and it is beautiful. It’s like feeling comfort in the presence of the other’s silence. It’s a way of existing, peacefully, within yourself. I also like the opposite: a certain nervousness that makes the actor’s body tense and supple, as if attuned to a secret rhythm only he can internalize. In Q I asked Kean to do something he does naturally, something I’ve seen him do many times when he concentrates or waits for a development: a quiet, subtle drumming of the fingers on the table top, like a signal his body sends into the immediate immensity of his surroundings.

Of course, now that I’ve asked him to do it, he does it less, as if prompted by an existential stubbornness he can’t control. But when he does allow himself to forget he’s on stage and his fingers find that rhythm again, his entire posture changes, as he gets ready for a confrontation that may never unfold.

In reality Kean is a walking contradiction: both a soft-spoken tenor (oh, how I fight his gentle, Southern inflections) and a baritone when he controls his voice; both lithe and powerful; both elegant, graceful, subtle, and somewhat intrigued by trash. A philosopher who stays on the surface of things because he can turn surface into content. It’s a gift (and a curse). I like working with him. I like seeing the way he gets a little better every day; I like the way he controls each line once it makes sense to him, each movement. There’s a moment at the end of the play when the Director (who’s also, very clearly, the Angel of Death from Noir – I’m stealing Bergman’s “man plays chess with Death” image from The Seventh Seal to communicate this), whispers something in Kean’s ear, touches his shoulder (a movement that mirrors a similar occurrence at the beginning of the play) and, gently, helps him leave a world that showed him little kindness. I don’t know what Kean does in that scene, I don’t know how he does it, but his entire body relaxes and falls in such a beautiful way, that I always find myself holding my breath until Death places him gently on the ground. This is the rhythm I can’t communicate immediately at the beginning of the rehearsal process, the one the actors find, slowly, as their silhouettes come together and separate, as if in a dance. There was much dancing in Noir, and a little bit of dancing in Glissando. In Q, this turns into the moments when Death and Alice guide Kean through the strange and hostile territories of the purgatory, the way Virgil once guided Dante through the nine circles of hell. Both women walk purposefully, slowly, rhythmically, holding Kean’s hand, and never once looking back for fear they might lose him. Poor Kean…

I love this play and its actors. Ok, I love every play, but none has been as out of joint, as mad, and happy, and desperate, and meta, and philosophical, and superficial, and self-indulgent as this one. There’s a trace of Marat/Sade there too, the image of the asylum and its residents staging a play about a revolution.

Kean says, “I feel a war coming,” and that’s how I’ve felt for years now, waiting for a confrontation that may never happen between me and the immensity that surrounds me, perhaps to put an end to my internal exile and bring me home, once and for all.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The Art of Telling Lies

Someone stopped by my office tonight, before class, and asked if I was ok. I can't explain how I knew this wasn't a casual, polite inquiry. I just did, or maybe I needed it to be a real question because I wanted to talk about the play.

I talk all the time. I talk to people about their problems, I talk about the department's problems, about worries and possibilities, about strategic plans, and money. I talk on the surface of things to the surface of people, not because there's no substance to our conversations, but because the part of me that really matters has no place there.

The only place where I am completely honest is the stage. Honesty is crucial. Oh, I've lied before, mostly to spare people's feelings - little or giant white lies. And a long time ago, I lied to stay alive, I lied about my writing and its purpose, I lied about my thoughts. Whenever I talk about fear and art (the consequence fear has on the artist), I think about those times, decades ago, when I learned to lie as I learned to write. With the decision to leave behind a country that proved so hostile to my being, came the decision to never lie again about anything important, to practice a brutality, a bluntness of expression that I find comforting. There's much more to be said here, but this is not the place to say it, to explain the extraordinary freedom I find in simply telling the truth, telling the emperor he's naked, confessing to my phobias and snobberies, cultivating my (very few) vices, spending time strictly with people who give me joy, forgiving little and forgetting nothing, discarding (human) baggage. This is what I say, what I do, in every play. Once a year, I gather my obsessions, place them inside a coherent frame, and call them a play. It's what's keeping me alive. It's the space I create when reality becomes brutal, inconvenient, or simply disappointing. I can't lie about theatre, about performances, direction, or script, but I also can't stop talking about the people I admire -- usually, the people I work with on a production -- whose unusual qualities astonish me.

And while I say, in rehearsal, "I don't believe anything you say. Say it again. Convince me." Or: "Too many gestures. Sit on your hands and say the line again." Or: "Stop being self-conscious. Slow down. Control your body. You look like you don't know what to do with your arms." Or: "I don't like the way you walk. Move in the rhythm of the music. Now stop. Whisper Now sing. Do it again, do it better..." what I think is this: I wish  I had time, in every rehearsal, to tell you how much it means to me that you're here, willing to sing, and crawl, and shout, and walk in slow motion until you're too exhausted to feel. Without you, I couldn't live in this world of my own making, my refuge, my obsession. Without you, who meet me, without complaint, at the end of your day just to "do it again, do it better," my work would be silenced, a mute pantomime without history, tragedy, or depth. I think: how beautiful your hands are; how gracefully you move, how gloriously sad you look in this light. I think: I love your face, I love looking at it, I love the defeat in your eyes, the frantic movement of your hands, the inflection of your voice on the last line of your monologue.

So why don't I say these things? Because there's never enough time, because before the play is ready for its public, a million little things need to be changed, perfected; because I can't lie about perfection either, and rhythm -- the rhythm of each play, its heart beat -- is in the details.

I have been told by the veterans of the Milena Group that they only lasted all these years because they learned not to take offense. I understand. I appreciate the effort, the work, the perseverance and, above all, the malleability that allows me to turn them into my characters.

(It is true: I fall for all my characters, however eccentric or flawed they may be. They belong to me and I depend on them, and there's some endless, inexplicable connection which, at the end of the performance, when the lights go up and we all know we've made something beautiful, is worth every hardship)

Every time I look at rehearsal photos, and see the extraordinary faces of the players, I need to talk about the play, about its place in my life, about its consequences. Remember what it felt like when you published your first book, your first story? When you read your poetry, before an audience, for the first time? Remember that feeling? A test of endurance of sorts. Fear, and anticipation, and the possibility of doom, and an uncontrollable sense of joy. That's what it feels like every time I do a play, and have to witness the reactions of a few hundred spectators to those million little details that matter so much.

That's what I wanted to say tonight when a kind soul asked me how I was. I wanted to say: I need to talk about the play, about the people in it. I wanted to say: I am afraid, I am terrified, but I can't stop, and I can't lie.

I wanted to say: they'll understand, eventually.