Wednesday, August 23, 2017

Haunting

I don’t know why I am obsessed with the things that I’m obsessed with, and I can’t change or redirect my obsessions, but at least I’m aware of them in every play. Does awareness count?

The first Registry rehearsal happened tonight and although this is a tale of bureaucracy and romance, a large-scale play (the opposite of Revision), my obsessions remain the same: relationships, failures, fantastical beings.

We started with 20 pages of text – a huge victory for me. Usually, I barely have a few pages on the first rehearsal. What I didn’t tell the cast is that everything we read tonight was written in the past ten hours. I didn’t have time to write before today (beginning of the semester madness), but I wasn’t worried:  I’ve carried The Registry in my head for so long, I knew it was just a matter of sitting down and writing it. I stopped after 20 pages because it was 5 pm and we had rehearsal at 6, not because I was done.

Before reading the script I tried to go over what I call “the unhappiness list,” mainly because almost everyone in the cast is new. Over the years, I’ve compiled a list of things that can potentially make people unhappy: my rhythm, my process, underestimating the amount of work that goes into the making of a play. The cast has seen some of the plays I’ve done, but we’ve not worked together on stage. I forget how difficult it is to explain to newcomers how The Milena Theatre Group works. The principles of Creative Writing come to mind. I can tell and tell, but until I show, until they experience the process, the description alone doesn’t count. 

I say: the text evolves, it changes, it grows with you. I say: we improvise this scene, and only when I have enough (the best!) material, that’s when the scene gets written. I say: the script will be complete at the end of the rehearsal process, not before. More difficult things to say: please leave your life at the door when you enter the rehearsal space. It makes all the difference. This is why I don’t have intermissions, so the public won’t leave the performance space and remember their problems. It is difficult, almost impossible to ask this of a cast. Stuff, real life stuff, happens all the time, and I am not prepared for it. I can’t explain, not in a way that makes sense to anyone new to the process, that I get ready for a rehearsal hours in advance, that an hour before I sit in the empty room and think of nothing else but the play, that I draw diagrams of the stage, imagine every movement and every voice inflection, that I listen to the soundtrack obsessively choreographing every scene in my mind, that once people come in, I no longer see their true identities but those of their characters. It’s a little bit like being in a trance (I’ve never been in a trance…) Perhaps it sounds merciless. It probably is. But I don’t know how to do a play otherwise.

Months after a show, I meet people who tell me they’re still thinking about the latest play. They tell me there’s something haunting about the Milena Group productions. I think this is where it comes from: this total immersion in the reality of the play, without the need to look back. Remember Orpheus and Eurydice? That’s how he loses her forever: by not believing in that fantastical promise, by turning back to verify reality, by forgetting to play his part. Rehearsals are the anti-Orpheus. Don’t ever look back. Pause reality. Forget…

After we read the script – basically the opening of The Registry – we spent a little time improvising with superb results. I saw a company’s rehearsal once where the actors stood in a circle paying each other compliments for about 15 minutes. “You have grown so much as an actor these past three weeks…” “I love how kind you are…” “You have such pretty hair…” Were they honest? Perhaps.  I grasp the scope of such an exercise (bonding, building confidence), but do these things really work? That image – people in a circle taking turns to say nice things to each other – stayed with me and I knew I’d use it in a play someday. The Registry is perfect for this: a collective of semi-fantastical clerks in charge of human relationships, starting every day with uplifting circle-compliments. That’s what our improv was about. “Your stapler is really polished.” “Oh, thank you, I’ve had it since my undergrad days…And can I say how impressed I am with your organized desk?” “Thank you! I’m really trying…I’m so grateful for your respect of deadlines. It makes my life so much easier,” and so on. When the head of HR told the youngest female employee (whose nickname is Baby): “Baby, I like how you pound that stamper,” and she replied “Thank you! That’s because my ink pad is really moist,” (ok, so it's not that kind of play, but - still funny for a first improv) I knew that, once again, I had assembled the perfect cast. There was some nostalgia there as well: some of the people in the cast are graduating this year, some will start their PhD exams, some are half-way through their dissertation. I’ll never work with some of them again. Perhaps this is our last play. The stage manager graduates as well, my right-hand girl, irreplaceable, intuitive, amazingly reliable. This is our fourth play together. I keep saying this: nobody truly knows anybody until they do a play together. Nobody really knows me until we meet on stage.


The stage is set. Rehearsals have begun. Questions (all the questions) will be asked, and answered, crises will happen, solutions will be found. There is a joy – almost a giddiness – I feel at the start of The Registry that I don't remember experiencing before. Perhaps it’s the subject (a comedy of bureaucratic revenge); perhaps it’s the people; perhaps it’s that I get reunited with my first lighting designer after more than five years. Perhaps it’s all these things. 

If this production will haunt someone, it will not be us, it will not be me. Let it be you, then.

Monday, June 26, 2017

THE REGISTRY: For-Like-Ever


For years now, I’ve been thinking 3-4 projects ahead, as I continued to experiment with something Bonnie Marranca calls, in Plays for the End of the Century, “a theatre of the first person.” Personal. Addictive. Cleansing. Basically therapy (why pay for therapy when you can stage it?)

Long before starting Noir, I knew that a love story with the Angel of Death would take me to Chekhov’s world of unrequited love, and then to the biggest idealist of them all, Quijote. These were the plays of the trilogy called The Falling. Then followed the most autobiographical play ever, Revision, and its finality, its irreversible nature, ended the first person cycle.

While working on Revision I tried really hard not to think of the next play. I failed. I was writing scenes for The Registry in my head while learning lines for Revision. The whole thing felt like imprisonment or self-sabotage. Days after Revision closed, I had the character files for The Registry complete.

So what is the Registry? A slippery bureaucratic empire, a potentially fantastical organization in charge of people’s souls. The branch we get to see in the play is in charge of love affairs, romantic encounters, soulmate scenarios. Ideally, everyone on file should be paired with the perfect partner, but the place is understaffed, and its clerks are overworked, so mistakes are made quite frequently. Grim angels in a suit, the clerks of the Registry work inside a place that looks like Kafka for lovers or Terry Gilliam’s Brazil. Imagine The Castle with a coke machine. Or Metropolis with an artist's model, and a psychiatrist on staff, for voluntary (mandatory) art and therapy sessions.

The Registry understands the century and has adapted to it. It has a vigorous social media presence using a Facebook-like network called Skyway.com to advertise its services (and secretly follow the private lives of its employees). It assigns multiple case workers to the more difficult files, and maintains a page called soulcrush.com where people can advertise their desires and expound on their unique qualities such as the fact that they enjoy long walks on the beach, and would like to consume cheese in the company of attractive and intelligent people. “Who is the crush of your soul?” is the network’s tagline and many of the Registry’s employees believe it to be truly catchy.

The characters are: Ada G. Ash, a Client in search of a modern day Mr. Darcy; Gianni Cassanova, the Artist’s Model (with a Ph.D in Philosophy); Suzi Might, Director of Accounting and an Expert in Risk Management; Betty Grail (Baby), a Registry Records clerk and Initial Interview Specialist; Athena Drake, Psychiatrist and Closet Romance Novelist; Vitto Salieri (Sal), Chief Human Resources Officer and Chair of the Committee on Committees, and God whose employment file is entirely classified.

The story has to be simple: a misplaced piece of paper, a detail, will get someone killed.

The subtext is simple: of love and bureaucracy – something as elemental and easy to comprehend as death and taxes.

The paratext is what I’m most excited about. If I get to stage this play downtown and have access not just to the stage but to the corridors and some gallery space as well, the world of The Registry will start to unfold weeks before the show, as the offices of soulcrush.com and Skyway Enterprises (“Our way or the Skyway” is another catchy motto) will invite future spectators to play. They’ll be able to describe their perfect partner, leave notes, take selfies inside the Registry Headquarters, post them online, receive responses to their inquiries, and so on and so on…the possibilities are endless.

As usual, the cast is perfect, and being completely familiar with their inflection, presence, walk, idiosyncrasies, and talents, I am writing lines with their persona in mind.

So these are the people. This is the plan. I am using real bureaucratic correspondence – emails and memos I have received whose content I will adapt to the needs of The Registry – that convinced me that bureaucracy has indeed the power of life and death over us mortals, and that its language can often annihilate sentiment. What happens to our more and more pallid understanding of love and relationships under the lens of a bureaucracy of the Registry’s proportions?

The stage is set. Rehearsals begin in August. The Registry has opened its doors.

Sunday, April 30, 2017

I see you, Mr. Gehry!




I have burns on the tips of my fingers from attaching strips of satin to the wires of a crinoline, with the help of a glue gun. The crinoline cage is now the exoskeleton of a killer mermaid, a cage of metal and fabric that contains and sustains her body – an anatomical impossibility even in the realm of fantastical beings.

I’ve always been more interested in the inner life of things - inner structures, complex architectures, scaffoldings. The skeleton, not the body. The armature, not the sculpture. The truth, not the padding. For some reason that I couldn’t explain before, I wanted the mermaid in Revision to wear her skeleton like a garment, on the outside. Forget improbabilities, think of the beauty of the thing. For the Milena Theatre Group, this isn’t a new tendency. An early attempt at a short film (Elsewhere) and one of our first productions (Scar)  featured breastplates and other molds of the actors’ bodies, empty, beautiful carcasses made of wire and tissue, inside which the actors crawled, for safety, thus managing to transform the shapes of their bodies under the eyes of the audience.

Our rehearsal process too begins with the skeleton of a play, an idea, a thought we think to its ultimate conclusion as rehearsals progress. Rehearsals are miraculous things: thinking herself free from the director’s gaze during a break, the actor will often do or say something surprising - a continuous movement, an elegant capitulation, an unusual turn of phrase – which are then incorporated into the performance. This is how each production takes shape.

I always feel strange trying to explain my process to outsiders, not because I believe they have no business learning about it, but because, most of the times, I see the misunderstanding in their eyes, as they’re trying to quantify and rename what we do in a way that will make them feel better about their own work. But there isn’t a set vocabulary for what we do. I work with the entire being, not just the bag of tricks the actor has to offer – that’s all there is to it.

I was thinking about the evolution of the Milena Group today while gluing satin to wire. Seventeen years of productions, sixteen plays all deconstructing the idea of theatre, all exposing what was once hidden: the skeleton upon which a production builds. I like the bare bones of things. The armature, the scaffolding, the skeleton – are like the desert: there’s no place to hide. I’m on the verge of a structural shift, I think. When I started the Milena Group, I promised myself never to settle, never to forget that what I do on stage is my research into a field that keeps changing in the telling. There is a need for new theatre vocabularies, and loud declarations of political principles or outrage at the state of the world changes little. In order  to focus, I’ve been trying to work small for a while. Revision does a little of that. The next play, The Registry, will be a departure from that principle, because each play chooses its format and methodologies, and The Registry will need ample space to unfold. But after that, I want to return to the idea of table magic. There’s a scene in Vanya on 42nd Street where, during a final rehearsal, a few friends of the director sit at a large table on stage. At the other end of the table, the actors, in street clothes, perform a scene oblivious to anyone’s presence. There is something terribly honest, stripped of pretension about doing Chekhov this way, around the dinner table, among friends or strangers who’ve gone through similar emotions and understand that what they are witnessing is life – unmasked, unspectacular, exposed.

I seem to have less and less access to a proper theatre, but at the same time, I seem to have less need of it. I would have simplified Revision much more, had the two films which are part of the play, not set the bar so high, visually. I didn’t want the audience to experience a disappointment, moving from screen to stage, had I not attempted to transform it.

Let’s not forget. I’m in a school auditorium, on a pale, narrow stage, surrounded by beige walls. My first reaction to the space was crying. But then I stopped that nonsense and looked to the work of that admirable guild, the Architects, who always inspire me because they manage to look at the body of a building and see its skeleton. So I’ll do what Frank Gehry did to another unfriendly interior meant to accommodate an opera: crumple paper and let it take over the space. Since the writer is also present in Revision, surrounded by hundreds of crumpled manuscript pages – writing is revision – why not turn the entire space into a giant discarded page?

So that’s the plan: a desert citadel made by a cardboard artist, a set overtaken by manuscript pages, a killer mermaid who discards her exoskeleton to make “snow” angels in the papers that litter the stage, and a woman carrying three bags and a chandelier through the desert, because one should never travel distances without a classy lighting source.

Faced with the prospect of hanging lights on ladders placed strategically throughout the room, the lighting designer suggested a return to the basics: installing “footlights” (read outdoor string lights) along the front edge of the stage. Why not?

In the process of working on Revision all sorts of reevaluations have taken place: of spaces, of possibilities, of relationships. As always, everything that appeared insurmountable at first, turned into the most creative of solutions. Reduced to their bare bones, interiors always prove friendly. The same cannot be said about people, but then again, I find that spaces keep memories better than anyone I know. “Memory: the space in which a thing happens for a second time.”



Frank Gehry's set for Don Giovanni