Monday, July 18, 2016

In Reach: On Directing

In Reach was the title of an art show that affected me profoundly. The artist, a sculptor I’d worked with on several Milena Group productions, had built, in the middle of a large exhibit space, a tree of gigantic proportions, with fantastical branches made of fabric and newspaper print, a tree alive with its own, as yet unexplored possibilities, whose silhouette projected on the immaculate wall shadows of a beauty I cannot explain. All I know is that, entering the exhibit, I noticed two things: the fact that the tree trunk was a female silhouette evolving into branches and shadows, and the fact that the shadows that trembled slightly with the movement of the crowd reminded me of the exquisite slow rhythm of Butoh dancers.

The artist’s statement connected the female tree with disease, but also with a cure accompanied by the possible disfigurement of the body – often the result of invasive surgical procedures. I thought, here is the wound and the knife inflicting it, disease and cure as one strategy for survival. What truly matters is the mark they leave behind.

It was then that I thought of another exhibit whose name I no longer remember, an art installation in Cincinnati where the artist had juxtaposed images of bodies prepped for surgery whose maps were drawn directly on the skin, with images of natural disasters that had scarred the landscape: earthquakes, avalanches, volcano eruptions. Maybe I’m making some of this up. Memory plays tricks on me quite often. Maybe all of this has happened. In Flaubert’s Parrot, Julian Barnes says, “what happened to the truth was not recorded.” It never is.

Why am I talking about this? Because for weeks now, I’ve been working on the script of the Milena Group’s new production, Revision, and I’ve experienced a loss of control, as if a shadow self (not me) has come out to play, bored with its captivity. The script has had more titles than I care to remember. In the end, I opted for Revision because memory is nothing but a revision of the truth.

In the previous post I talked about the film. Vaguely. Now I know what the show, this odd performance-reading-screening will look like. Three distinct parts: a short film about the desert (exile in the desert); a short descent into autobiography (my narrating, on stage, events from my life before and after becoming an expat); a short film about the sea (a state of eternal shipwreckedness). The desert and the sea bookend the reality of expatriation, and are the fictional projections of the truths uttered on stage. Of course I’m terrified. First I thought the fear came from the actual confessions…but no. It’s not that. It’s the blindness that comes with my being both actor and director. Everything I do on stage is subservient to the beauty of the image. How will I see myself? Even if I have a stand-in, her silhouette is not mine, her gestures are not mine. I will direct blind, having to trust (blindly!) the man in the lighting booth. Control. Directing is about control. Not tyranny over people, but the absolute control of the image and its evolution, from moment to moment, on stage. Every play I do tells three simultaneous stories: the immediate one expressed in dialogue; the one that gives it shape (the spectacle); and the one that gives it resonance (music, sound). How will I be able to direct in the absence of seeing?

When I direct a play I am a mass of contradictions: I know what I’m doing and I second guess what I’m doing (this stops, immediately, when the image that’s in my head, or an interpretation of it, materializes on stage). I think in metaphors. I explain everything in images. I don’t know what I want but I know what I don’t want. I have no preconceived ideas, no fixed rhythm in my head. The rhythm of each piece takes shape slowly in rehearsal.

I am a creature of habit. For a decade I’ve worked with the same artists (set designers, lighting people, actors). I had to communicate little. Words were not necessary; we understood each other. But ever since I felt the compulsion to tell the story of my exile to one man, as if, in his capacity to listen and memorize my stories, he was playing a part that had been written for him, inexplicably, even before we met, everything I thought I knew changed. Once I started telling him about my past, I couldn’t stop. One story became ten, and then a script, and two short films, and then suddenly, all my obsessions crawled to the surface of speech, and I found myself without a mask. I felt free, for the first time, absolutely, irrevocably free. And I felt afraid. I felt independent, and I felt connected to him, the keeper of my stories, in a way, I suppose, that people almost drowning feel toward their rescuers. This is how Revision began. And once it started, it could not be stopped.

This is what I know so far. There are two women jn Revision: me, and a fictional representation of me (the girl). The girl is beautiful, graceful, diminutive – the opposite of me, physically. In the two fictional parts of the production, she exists only on screen. In the middle part, as I confront reality, she walks on stage, carrying bags (a sign of homelessness and wandering), and a gigantic chandelier.
I have a million questions about the process, about combining film and performance, about the soundtrack’s fluctuations, about the possibilities of light. I’m working with people who don’t know me. I have to find a new vocabulary for everything I see when I close my eyes. I know, I know: this is how every play is made. A bunch of strangers get together and find a common rhythm in three weeks, and some feel like stabbing others, and then on opening night, they all get along and profess their love for one another. Well, has anyone wondered why there’s so much bad theatre out there? Could this alienation effect (My apologies, Herr Brecht) have anything to do with it?

The more I write, the more I need to talk. Before I talk to the audience, I have to talk to someone I trust. I have become impatient, reckless, abrupt. Summer is coming to an end, time is no longer patient. What I want takes time, and isolation, and possibly a lack of concern for the outside world because I’ve been moving toward this project for years, with increasingly autobiographical and meta-theatrical projects, until this avalanche of memories took over and asked to become a play. But this is not how the world works. Even the art of theatre takes into account social graces. I am afraid that this thing I’ve kept bottled up for over 20 years is changing me. It is not a play. It is an act of reaching toward another.

I am in reach. I have arrived at an impasse. But as the exhibits, and the books I’ve learned from taught me, flight begins with the impossibility of flight and the disease is often its own cure.