Monday, March 12, 2007

Child's play is hard work!

Kiran and I are here in Stolen Chair's Parisian HQ and I finally have a few moments to catch up on our retreat from the first weekend in March. This retreat was perhaps our most challenging to date, and overall, felt much more like Stage Kiss than either of the CineTheatre projects (Kill Me Like You Mean It and The Man Who Laughs) insofar as our primary challenge was the invention of a performance style (in Stage Kiss we tried to marry Ludlam-esque camp with the Elizabethan boy-actor tradition) whereas in both CineTheatre retreats, we only had to translate a style from film to theatre (silent film and film noir, respectively). Since Stage Kiss, however, was adapted (very loosely) from a text by John Lyly (Gallathea), we at least had a very solid understanding of plot and character.

What did we start with this weekend? Big dreams and a box of props. We knew we wanted to play with the conventions of Weimar Cabaret, the plots of Grimm's fairytales, and the theatrical concept of "age-drag" (the idea that age, like gender, can be performed against biological "realities," and that this performance can range from "passing" to parody). One weekend proved only enough time just barely to begin exploring the latter. Thank goodness we have over 6 more months to cook this one up.

I think that with each successive retreat, we've begun the collaborative process with fewer conceptual elements pre-determined, allowing ourselves to discover these on our feet. And this is good. Very good. It allows us to collectively craft a production that is well-suited to the specific creative team we've assembled. But it's not expedient and it certainly can lead one to bang one's head frequently on any nearby walls. Actually, if the past 5 years are any indication, the number of times I've banged my head on walls at a given retreat is directly proportional to the eventual artistic success of the production.

So, head-banging aside, what did we learn on this retreat? In no particular order:
  1. Our entire creative team has a really clear idea (whether each collaborator realizes it or not) of how children behave (and think!) at a variety of developmental stages. If we continue to explore this direction, we'll reinforce these instincts with some observation (trips to the playground!) and try to dig up some more video footage and reading.
  2. Our entire cast is capable of creating compelling and believable characters that are under the age of 10. Some of our actors are more natural fits for specific age brackets within that range.
  3. It is disappointingly natural to watch an adult actor performing as a young child. There is no tension, no cognitive dissonance, no general creepiness in the image. I was really hoping there would be. I think costuming and make-up can help bring this quality out if we do want to pursue it.
  4. On the other hand, when we set-up scenarios to allow for the actors to cut loose and play as young children might (without actually performing as young children), there was a real edge present in watching adults genuinely play. It is transgressive. Revolutionary, even. It might be one of the last taboos left in our culture. If we're clever, we'll find a way for the audience to vicariously (or actually?) enjoy this transgression throughout our performance.
  5. It is really interesting to watch (an adult performer playing) a young child impersonate older characters. It has brilliant satirical potential insofar as it disarms as it mocks.
  6. And speaking of mocking, the work with Lecoq's concept of the bouffon was informative but might be a dead-end for us if we try to deal with it head-on. I think we'll be much more successful adapting some of the techniques of buffonery in our exploration of child's play than we will be in the conscious construction of bouffon characters.
  7. We must beware of "school play syndrome." This syndrome pops up when children are performing material handed down to them by adults and/or when audiences are led to respond to the humor inherent in children doing things "badly" (because of lack of motor-skills or cognition). Our project needs to avoid taking advantage of the comedy of children failing to measure up to adult standards, and instead try to find the comic delight of children doing what children do best when left to their own devices (and this includes the violence and sexuality that we often diminish/ignore in child's play).
  8. Though both will be useful for our purposes, role-playing is different than play-acting. Role-playing still retains a sort of meta-level understanding of rules; in fact, role-playing never seems to become "unruly," except when arguments arise between the role-players as to what the rules actually are or should be. Role-playing often originates from simulation of the adult world and as such can provide telling commentary on the adult world (see item #5) but does not seem to provide an opportunity for the sort of committed play that is in our culture, solely available to the 10 and under set (see item #4). Play-acting is liberatory, its rules evolve, shift, and change at it proceeds (therefore making it more collaborative), and requires total commitment in order to be sustained. In our experiments with play-acting, language was an intrusion, forcing the metalevel back and killing the sense of play.
  9. Our conceit of having adult actors portraying adults who portray child cabaret performers who perform their cabaret act will fall primarily on playwriting, dramaturgy, direction, and design. It is not possible to convey this layering without giving a lot of thoughts to these elements. The difficulty of communicating age-drag was surprising when compared to our gender-drag explorations in the Stage Kiss retreat; I think the instinct in the audience member is to suspend disbelief and flatten disparate elements in age drag, whereas a multiplicity of genders can exist simultaneously for an audience. I think, therefore, we will have to think about how a progression of elements can reveal the total drag-picture, as opposed to letting a single picture tell it all.
  10. It is difficult to tell exactly how "age drag" differs from gender drag and how it is the same. For instance, I think we are much more willing to see gender as performative/culturally mediated. Age, on the other hand, seems to be biologically "real," and not at all performative. That said, if you ask someone in the mid-twenties to perform as a middle-aged person, they can do it. Is this because the body of a middle-aged person moves inherently? Maybe. But there's no doubt that a 25 year old and a 50 year old also choose to present themselves differently, and that includes the use of their bodies. But what about the difference between a 5 year old and a 25 year old? Surely the 5 year old isn't making (conscious or unconscious) performative choices; he is simply moving and acting the only way he can, based on biological and psychological development. Or is there some element of performance here, too? Does a 5 year old use her body differently from a 25 year old simply because she must, or also because she can?
  11. In telling fairy tales, we either need to make up our own from very recognizable fairy tale motifs or let the child-characters pervert recognizable fairy tales to the degree that they almost become new fairy tales.
Okay, that's all for now. Hopefully, in the next couple of days I'll be posting some revelatory thoughts on how to integrate fairy tales and Weimar Cabaret into this already heady mix. While wandering around the International Theatre and Film Bookstore in Amsterdam on Saturday (do we even have such a store in NYC?), I found a book/cd set called Cabaret Berlin published by Ordered it from Amazon and it will be waiting for me when we return to the other side of the Atlantic.

1 comment:

David said...

Hear hear on number 8! Very pithily summed up. Nice photos of everyone, too. Elisa you ought to wear that hat around on the street.