Friday, November 17, 2006

Film noir is my favorite stye/genre/movement/era/group of films...

I mentioned to someone yesterday that Kill Me Like You Mean It is an Absurdist film noir for the stage, and he was very quick to recommend that our whole cast see Pick Up on South Street. I've added it to my Netflix queue, but am already disappointed to see it's from 1953. Why??? Read on...

When people say "film noir," they often mean very different things: for some, a film noir is any movie with a private detective; for others, it's any movie with Humphrey Bogart; film buffs will lump most dark and moody B-movies of the period (1941-1957) with a crime element into the film noir category. Why??? Read on...

Most people (including many film scholars) think of film noir as a genre of film, like westerns, melodramas, romantic comedies, etc. But film noir is not really a proper genre, because the other genres we all refer to are labels specifically applied to films by film studios trying to sell their product to a target audience. A Douglas Sirk melodrama produced in the late 50s was meant to draw a specific audience, and the label "melodrama" (accompanied by a genre-appropriate publicity campaign) was one of the studio's tools to drive that audience in.

But film noir was not a label applied by any studio until long after the classic era of film noir (roughly 1941-1956) concluded with Orson Welles' Touch of Evil. From what I understand, noir was the first film movement defined from without, instead of within, and the story of the term's genesis reveals quite a bit about style itself.

Film noir was a term coined by French cinephiles after the (Second World) War. From 1938 until 1945, the French did not have access to new American films. The vision of American film that the French maintained through this dark age was likely the light and fluffy madcap farces and the sentimental melodramas of the 30s.

After the war, American films rushed back into the country, and within a span of two summer months in 1946, the French caught up on all that happened in American film during the prior 7 years: The Maltese Falcon, Laura, Murder My Sweet, Double Indemnity, I Wake Up Screaming and many many more. This was a far cry from the zany comedies and matinee idols (See Bringing Up Baby) that had flooded the silver screen less than a decade earlier. These movies brought viewers into seedy and violent underworlds, drew on German Expressionist cinematography and design, featured much older leading men (whose faces were often pummeled by film's end), offered labyrinthine oneiristic plots (Raymond Chandler freely admitted that The Big Sleep is almost entirely unintelligible without prior knowledge of the novel), and presented a bleak, paranoid world-view that was very much in line with the spirit of postwar-France. In short, these films were dark, very dark, and the French applied to them the same term that they did to similarly dark novels: "noir," meaning black.

Historians and scholars can't seem to come to agreement about whether film noir is a sub-genre, a style, a movement, or simply a group of films. If it is sub-genre, than what genre should it placed under: melodramas, crime films, or thrillers? And if it is a style, was it a self-conscious one, or simply the result of the fact that most of these films were B-movies under financial duress (Why are there so many shadows in film noir? Simple answer: the directors had to use single source key lights, often from practicals, due to their budget constraints...)? And if it is a movement, was it an unspoken allegiance of like-minded artists or simply the zeitgeist of that period in American history? And if it is, at the end of the day, only a group of films, who gets to determine which films make that list?

Since the very "definition" of film noir seems to be in the eye of the beholder, allow me to submit, on behalf of Stolen Chair, the definitive film noir list. These are all films which, in some way or another, articulated for our company what it is that we love about film noir. With the exception of D.O.A., all of the films precede the 50s, and this a very important characteristic of the noir that Stolen Chair loves: it is firmly rooted in the rare intersection of post-war trauma, pre-war anxiety, and mid-war constructions of morality and nationalism that marked the 40s. This strange brew gives noir its distinctive bleak cynicism and fatalism, its transgressive but ultimately repressive gender dynamics, its bizarre unresolved endings, and, most importantly for Stolen Chair, its leanings towards Absurdism (which emerged over in France only a few years later).

Here they are in no particular order:
See the movies and then come back to the blog in a few days and read about what we've taken from these all to create our original Absurdist film noir for the stage, Kill Me Like You Mean It.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

A train that turns into a bird: Performing absurdism

Today I was asked to articulate how absurdism and naturalism differ from the actor's point of view. This is roughly what I came up with:

One can visualize a character's naturalistic "through-line" as a train moving progressively closer towards a final destination. It might change speed, it might have to avert obstacles and change tracks, but its only objective is to arrive at its scheduled station stop. Once the train reaches its destination, it has undergone a complete (and coherent) journey and this journey changes it (or at least its location).

Now, imagine that same train cruising towards its final destination, only this time the train temporarily turns into a bird. It flies along for a little while, perhaps reaching its nest or perhaps not. At some point it transforms back into the train in exactly the same spot it flew away. As it continues to drive down its track, it might change into a car, a submarine, a bumble-bee, each time diverting into a new journey, only to return back to the tracks. And then, once the train finally arrives at its appointed destination, it finds itself back at the station it originally departed from; there has been no change, and the train simply begins the journey again.

Did anyone follow that over-extended metaphor? I'm not sure I even did, but I guess what I'm getting at is that in absurdism, the character may have a primary objective, but he/she has to indulge quite a few other objectives which might have nothing at all to do with that super-objective (ex. Romeo's super-objective might be to marry Juliet; absurdist Romeo still wants to marry Juliet, but must stop along the way to count his chest hairs, to pretend to be a lizard, and to prove that God is dead, all with the same commitment as his romantic goals). These detours will run to the end of their course and then deposit the actor right back into the struggle to reach his/her final destination. Unfortunately, due to the cyclical nature of most absurdist plays, the character never has the opportunity to reach the final destination, and even if he/she does, this success is often tempered by the realization that the achievement of the objective was ultimately futile (turns out Romeo and Juliet have gotten married, divorced, and remarried several times a day for the past 10 years).

Where this clearly gets frustrating for a perfomer is the attempt to create a character that can contain the primary objectives AND all of the divergences. It might be more useful to think of a multiple-character model, as there is rarely any thread connecting these disparate moments. Robert Leach, in an essay on Meyerhold (not an absurdist), articulated what could be extrapolated as a primer on absurdist performance, substituting "set role" and "mask" for "superobjective" and "detour":

"When he [Hamlet] finds Claudius praying, his set role is that of the Revenger; but moments later, in his mother's bedroom, his mask is that of the disobedient Hamlet, we change: we behave as a child when with our a supplicant to our Bank Manager, as a 'good fellow' to our acquaintances at the pub, as a conscientous worker to our boss, and so on."

Where absurdism throws all of this into disorder is that the absurdist playwrights would have us act like a child with the Bank Manager and as a conscientous worker with our parents. But the actor's task remains fundamentally the same...

Okay. Enough. Comments?

Monday, November 13, 2006


During yesterday's "stumble-through," the whole cast had the opportunity to see the brilliant fight sequence that company member Jon Campbell choreographed for Sam Dingman and Cameron J. Oro. Though it, like everything else in the show, still needs quite a bit of rehearsal (it's okay, we don't open until after New Year's), it really reminded me why I love stage combat so much and made it very clear why combat is currently so in vogue (see Vampire Cowboys, Friday Night Fight Club, et al). For starters, it's undeniably a lot of fun: fun to create, fun to rehearse, fun to perform, fun to watch. More importantly, it models so many components of Stolen Chair's rehearsal philosophies:
  1. It demands collaboration, not only between the doers, but between the choreographer and the combatants. As Stolen Chair has learned (time and time again), stage combat which isn't created on/for the specific bodies of the participants will invariably look wooden or worse, actually endanger one or more of the combatants. The same level of collaboration is vital for the director-actor relationship. No matter how many hours I spend researching and working theatrical moments out in my head, once I step into the rehearsal I need to table those dreams and schemes and deal with the "real": the actors' abilities, interests, and passions.
  2. In order for either combatant to pull off the fight sequence, they need to work very hard to make their scene partners look good--if only actors could approach every scene with this selfless commitment.
  3. It provides a complex physical score which the actors must use as a vehicle to carry the characters' emotional dynamics. When Stolen Chair creates a production, every moment is precisely "scored," and this challenges any actor working with the Chairs to find the freedom within that structure.
  4. It forces an important playful distance between the actor and the character. In order to prevent mutual injury, the actors can never actually yield (even in the slightest) to the anger and aggression they are performing, retaining the space between the actor and the mask.
We look forward to sharing our li'l brawl with you in January. Tickets are already on sale for Kill Me Like You Mean It...

Oh, and if you are reading this entry (and especially if you are a regular reader of this blog), drop a comment so we know you're out there.

Case in point

Read Martin Denton's review of "Security 2," a politically relevant theatre piece which seemed to leave him cold in the wake of the recent elections...

Sunday, November 12, 2006

The Renaissance

"In Italy, for thirty years under the Borgias they had warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed, but they produced Michelangelo, Leonardo Da Vinci and the Renaissance. In Switzerland, they had brotherly love, they had 500 years of democracy and peace--and what did they produce? The cuckoo clock"
-Orson Wells, THE THIRD MAN
The last time I was in Italy, I was out to dinner with the late Larry Sacharow and our entire group (it was an abroad program hosted by Fordam which brought theatre students to train with Thomas Richards at the Jerzy Grotowski Workcenter in Pontedera, Italy...sadly, they no longer offer it!) was still quite devastated by the 2000 election--for many it was our first electoral experience. Someone, I think it was Anthony Cerrato, was asking Larry about how artists were going to survive the conservative wave (note: this is pre-9-11 and Iraq War). Larry prophesied a great renaissance in the New York theatre, likening the political climate to Reagan and Nixon era antecedents.

While Stolen Chair is certainly in no position to assess whether or not New York theatre has experienced a renaissance in the past 6 years, I think many of us in the indie/off-off world have felt something palpable in the air; I've heard many artists claim that downtown theatre has grown more consistently "watchable" in recent years (whatever that means). Is this because of a dozen years of Republican rule? Who can say? Will artists lose their steam after last week's Democratic coup? That sounds awfully silly, doesn't it?

And yet, as Kiran and I sit here hammering out rewrites of the last few scenes of Kill Me Like You Mean It, I worry that our electoral elation might siphon some of the vitriol from our approach to the play. Stolen Chair has always avoided creating explicitly "political theatre," and has instead tried to weave our ever-insightful (to us, at least!) sociopolitical commentary into the fabric of a "well-made play," allowing our ideas to insidiously crawl into the audience's brains while they're sucked into the world of the play. That said, Kill Me... is much more "aggressive" than our prior works, if only because there are fewer layers of theatricalized distance between 2006 America and the playworld's setting in 1946 America and the dialogue, though borrowing heavily from early Ionesco and early Film Noir, is much more realistic than our last 3 productions (in reverse order: Elizabethan blank-verse, silent film intertitles inspired by Victor Hugo, and Moliere-ian rhyming couplets).

And if we're worried that our subtle jibes and allusions may seem dated or irrelevant, what about those theatre artists putting the finishing touches on their latest Bush-parodies? What about Subjective Theatre's Party Discipline, a mock Republican convention? How are New York theatre-goers going to react when artists try to preach to the same choirs who have been of late, so vocal in their enthusiasm for liberal solidarity? Will this push artists to challenge their audiences a little bit more, or to altogether give up on the very idea that theatre can be socially engaged/relevant?

Put simply: do artists need "warfare, terror, murder and bloodshed" (or in the very least, political frustration and ennui) to create great art?

Saturday, November 11, 2006

NYTE interviews Stolen Chair's Kiran Rikhye

...on the genesis of The Man Who Laughs and the origin of Stolen Chair's name, among other things.

Read it here...

Sunday, November 05, 2006

On being a laboratory theatre (Warning: Long post)

I've (first person singular pronouns will usually refer to me, Jon Stancato, Co-Artistic Director of the company) decided to write our first real entry on an aspect of the company John Clancy noted interest in when we spoke last week. A lot of theatre companies on our scale in the indie theatre community have the word "experimental" theatre somewhere in their mission statement. When we first sat down to write ours (almost 5 years ago), we felt it was important to call ourselves a "laboratory theatre."

Now, the only other lab theatre we knew of then (and the only one besides us that I can think of today) was Jerzy Grotowski's Polish Lab and we knew for certain that our aesthetic and mission had absolutely nothing to do with that company and its legacy. Nevertheless, we liked what the term lab theatre conjured up: artists working with scientific diligence to discover what is or is not possible, every so often discovering something valuable (which a commercial enterprise could put on the market and sell).

I guess the primary difference, as far as I see it, between a laboratory theatre and an experimental theatre, is that a lab is focused on the research (which, in addition to study and discussion, often necessitates many experiments) while an experimental theatre is focused on an experiment ("to test or establish a hypothesis" according to M-W). It seems the former model can start from a place of uncertainty, where the latter requires a starting principle.

Like it or not, we're stuck with the uncertain laboratory approach--we have NO CLUE what our next project will be (after Kill Me Like You Mean It closes at the end of January)!!! We can't plan our next production because we can't project what our lab's collective knowledge base will be so many months into the future. We like to think about each new show as somehow filling in gaps in our theatrical understanding left open by the last completed production. After The Man Who Laughs, our incredibly earnest heart-string-tugging live silent film for the stage (script available in Playing with Canons), we wanted to see it it was possible to connect as fully with our audience in a world that reveled in artifice as much as The Man Who Laughs celebrated sincerity. That led us to Stage Kiss, our original Elizabethan gender-farce in blank verse...

So what's next after an absurdist film-noir for the stage? We'll keep you posted. Though we do know that at some point over the next 2 years we'll need to approach the last two installments of our CineTheatre Tetralogy (4 years, 4 productions, 4 classic film styles adapted for the stage...), but I think the film styles we choose will be entirely dependent on what shores this current project deposits us on.

One last thing about a laboratory theatre: with the exception of labs supported by academic institutions, research labs today often must create some commercially viable product to keep their doors open and their Bunsen burners burning. It was always our hope that our lab theatre would create a product with a shelf-life longer than our too-brief performance experiments. The closest we've come to this so far is the publication of The Man Who Laughs in script form (Thank you, Martin Denton and the New York Theater Experience). Perhaps (we can dream, can't we?), productions of MWL will dot the country, nay the globe, and we'll rake in the royalties, reinvesting the money into our humble little lab...

(I see how once you get started on the first post, others seem to naturally follow. Expect some future posts on our looooong developmental process, the Great American Play, and stage combat)

Thursday, November 02, 2006


Thanks for checking out the brand new blog of The Stolen Chair Theatre Company. Once we figure out how to get this blog-party started, you can expect to read more than you ever wanted to know about how an NYC laboratory theatre develops its work, rants from our co-artistic directors about producing in New York, plugs galore for our upcoming projects, and hopefully some links to glowing reviews as they come in...

In the meantime, we hope you'll check out our website and the website for our upcoming production, Kill Me Like You Mean It, an absurdist film noir for the stage, opening January 5, 2007.