Thursday, March 29, 2007

Inspiration or something like it

So, after my last post which took stock of where our company stood after our retreat for "The Weimar Fairy Tale Project," Kiran and I struggled to figure out what the next step should be for the project. It was like writer's block but worse: co-artistic directors' block [cue dramatic outro music]! This has never happened to us before and it's very clear why it's happened this time. We've always started with either a style or a story or a something. This time one could say we were starting with a concept, but only in the broadest sense of the word. It is only through realizing the many ways this project parallels Stage Kiss that we were able to begin making sense of it. And now that Kiran and I have wrapped our wee wee heads around this big ol' beast of a project, we need to bring our collaborators back in and see if our ideas hold water (or anything else, for that matter!). After a week of discussion, I'd like us to hit the studio and try making some art and stuff. If, by early May, we (and I probably mean it royally here) don't feel like the project's off and running, we'll take stock again and see if we need to whip up a totally new project proposal.

So, here's what we've come up with:

In Kinderspiel (note the new working title!), Stolen Chair presents a transgressive and debauched drag performance which, instead of deconstructing gender, seeks to break down binaries between adults and children. Set in the world of Weimar Berlin, one cabaret offers access to the ultimate taboo, an opportunity to watch adults play as children do. After all, “child’s play” is too important to be squandered on the young.

Here's what this means:

The thing that emerged as most exciting from the retreat (for us, at least!) was not the transgressive power of seeing adults perform as children because, frankly, after enough productions of Peter Pan and enough SNL sketches, that particular effect has lost much of its edge. What actually seemed to carry transgressive power was seeing adults (clearly marked as such) play the way children do. At this point we felt torn between--you'll have to pardon the intrusion of intro-level undergraduate performance theory--Apollonian and Dionysian models. We were frustrated that the path which seemed to make the most sense was an Artaudian/Paratheatrical environment in which the audience not only watches adults get their child-like groove on, but also has an opportunity to indulge in that play themselves...all in all a very UN-Stolen Chair endeavor. On the other hand, we worried that the sense of play we were after would be crushed by the sort of repetition that a more formal production would require.

The world we're imagining might look something like this (much of this would just be contextual backstory, of course):
  • A group of characters drawn from the Weimar-era Berlin demi-monde have decided to escape the repression and depression of everyday life by creating a Kinderspiel club. (Kinderspiel translates to "child's play," "a play performed by children," and "a play performed for children.")
  • Their activities have begun to attract attention from the wider public, and what started off as a private club soon transforms into a major Berlin hotspot, though the proceedings face continual opposition from the Communists, National Socialists, and Capitalists, all of whom have different reasons for frowning upon such transgression.
  • The performance itself would be an extended session of "pretend," in which the Kinderspielers would create, with just the cheap props and set they have on hand, the world's greatest children's story, an anachronistic pastiche of children's literary tropes (ideally fused with the actors play as seamlessly as drag performance and Elizabethan-pastiche were fused in Stage Kiss).
It's our hope that the piece will:
  1. Be even more "emancipating" (as reviewer Will Cordeiro put it) than Stage Kiss insofar as its dedication to kid-logic will create a topsy-turvy world of unstable meanings and deconstructed dogmas.
  2. Allow a space for audience members (of any age) to break down (with delight) the usual divide between the social spheres respectively designated for adults and children
  3. Allow a space for audience members (of any age) to enjoy the subversive naughtiness of children's literature without feeling condescended to.
  4. Be a blast to perform given the balance between psychotically high-charged improvisatory energy and precisely scored performance.
  5. Use the backdrop of the Weimar-era's tensions between sociopolitical despair and liberatory sub-culture to explore how participation in transgressive performance can range from active subversion to passive escapism.
So, Chairs, have at that! Feel free to post comments on the blog if you want to go public with your thoughts, but it would be great if all of you could email me or the group list and let everyone know what you're excited about so we can move forward on this. And if you're not one of our collaborators but tuning in all the same, feel free to post away in the comments section as well.

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.