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

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