Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Messymaking on the 6th Floor: Kinderspiel's staged reading at the Ohio

As I've written in earlier manifesti, Stolen Chair is a laboratory theatre and, as such, we often try to use the metaphor of a pharmaceutical lab (as they often both have non-profit and commercial components) to articulate our relationship to the ideas of process and product. In such a lab, one works out ones experimental drug as fully as one can before subjecting poor unsuspecting humans to the nasty side effects. With a theatre's lab reading, however, a script/production concept is tested out in front of an audience (hopefully of colleagues and intimates) long before it's fit for human consumption. Sure you can learn a lot from testing your drug/play on humans while it's still really rough around the edges, but is it a good idea?

In the past, Stolen Chair has had a very rickety relationship with the notion of a reading. The very first public reading we had (Virtuosa in late 2004) was 2 years into our company history and, strangely enough, about 6 months after we had produced the play itself. Not exactly the traditional path of play development.

Since becoming resident artists at Horse Trade, lab readings (of the chair and music stand variety) have been par for the course. But because these plays have been written specifically for an ensemble of actors, scripted on their bodies, and already tested out in rehearsal, I can't say that these readings have been extraordinarily enlightening for Emily, Kiran, or me; primarily they've served to bring our designers, board members, and co-producers into the process.

When we submitted Kinderspiel to the 6th Floor Series, we literally had no idea what we were getting ourselves into. Not only was the production just a microscopic zygote of a conceit at the time we applied, but we had never even had a chance to see another company tackle the 6th Floor format as many of us work on Monday nights.

We entered the space at 5pm on Saturday night with a box full of props and roughly 20 pages of text, neither of which the cast had ever seen before as most of our R&D on this project has centered around developing character, exploring the Weimar setting, and experimenting with the notion of child's play. All we knew was that we had 10 hours to create some forum in which we could, as a creative team, actually make discoveries about this project rather than, as we had in the past, simply use the reading as an opportunity to clue our collaborators in.

So, the traditional chair & music stand format wasn't going to work for us as one of the most importants things we needed to learn was how an audience would respond to the play's kinderspieling moments, the indulgent expanses of child's play that the production's entire conceit rests on (and, incidentally, the carry-over from the very first exercise we did after warm-up in our Kinderspiel retreat in February).

We began trying to roughly stage the entire play, to do a sort of first pass and establish a few marks to hit in each scene. Dee-zas-ter. It's one thing if you're doing pychological realism and can create enough solid ground just by scoring when people enter, when they exit, when they stand, and when they sit, but to do the physicality of a Stolen Chair production half-way would just make us all look bad (and, for what it's worth, also made the text's meaning less discernible). Like oh so many rehearsals for this challenging project, it was only in the last 45 minutes of Saturday's rehearsal that we began to hit upon a way to make this work.

We came in on Sunday with a clearer plan for action: Emily and I selected a list of about 2 dozen stage directions (roughly 1/4 of which were kinderspieling episodes) that we could actually direct on stage, as it were. We intentionally picked textless moments to stage so the actors could leave their scripts at music stands, fully commit to the staging, and then return. In order for the actors to have the opportunity to fully invest in their characters physicalities, we ditched the chairs and had 4 of the 5 characters standing. When we were done it certainly didn't look like any reading I'd ever been to.

Roughly 15 people showed up for Monday's reading, almost half of which were newcomers to Stolen Chair's work and had heard about it through Soho Think Tank's emails and the listing in the Onion. The 20 pages of text ran over an hour in performance and we made a big ol' mess on stage (forcing us, with great relish, to realize that our set will likely be destroyed by play's end each night). Though it was by no means ready for the masses, I was really proud with how much spaghetti we were able to throw against the wall after only 10 hours of rehearsal, and, based on the feedback we received afterwards, it seems as though some of it actually stuck :)...People really responded to the way in which we used the conceit of child's play and fairy tale-ish prose to approach some rather dark material (to paraphrase a comment from Vanessa Sparling, the series' curator: "Sexualizing children is disturbing; sexualizing adults who are playing like children,is very disturbing!"), to the questions the play poses about rationalizing art, about class, and about mainstreaming the marginal, and to the gusto and commitment with which actors involved in this project must throw themselves (Layna smashed not one, but two props in the heat of the action; to be fair she broke one of the props on the other so it was kind of a twofer).

We also learned a lot about what didn't stick. We obviously still need to develop the plot and the play's emotional arc more clearly. The balance between monologue and action needs to be tinkered with and we're likely going to alter the conceit of the text, as well, losing the Germanic syllables while keeping the German grammar.

If you happened to catch the reading and have more feedback you'd like to offer, comment away.

And now we get to go switch gears again and focus on the upcoming Commedia dell'Artemisia performance at the Brick's Pretentious Festival on Friday. Have you bought your tickets yet?

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