Sunday, November 16, 2008

Born to die

Ah, now that Vi is back in rehearsals full time again, it looks like we'll have a steady stream of rehearsal photos.  Good. We played with some really fun/sick lazzi today: 
  • Lazzo of Sicilian mourning (which I made Liza do 5 times.  She thinks I was trying to explore different "variations."  Nope.  Just damn funny.  Wanted more more more.)
  • Lazzo of the "Oriental" Seance
  • Lazzo of the Spirit Possession
  • Lazzo of death by consumption  (picture above.  Alexia's long sinewy limbs and dancerly control, not to mention her wide eyes, transform these classic death scenes from great drama into campy high art.)
  • Lazzo of death by smothering
  • Lazzo of death by poisoning
  • Lazzo of a toddler's death
  • Lazzo of the Dance of the Seven Veils (picture below.  Rainbow, who has never seen the classic burlesque Dance of the Seven veils was asked to improvise one.  I could have laughed my way through at least another 20 veils)
After rehearsal (and an exciting design meeting), Kiran and I devised a system to rank our lazzi (and their accompanying texts) in terms of their wrongness.  Now, those of you who have followed Stolen Chair's work over the past 6 years perhaps know that Kiran and I have a special affection for the wrong.  We like to break rules.  Is this iconoclasm for its own sake?  Maybe.  But what's so bad about that?  When you smash all the statues in the temple you find out what, if anything, is still worth having faith in.  And honestly, if these (metaphorical) statues were really meant to be invulnerable, a couple of kooky artists couldn't shatter them so easily.   

So, in an attempt to wrest our humanity and subjectivity from the monolithic pages of On Death and Dying, from the late-Victorian discomfort with corporeality, and perhaps worst of all, from the Judeo-Christian (and later Cartesian) soul-body schisms, we're trying to push past our own comfort zones the "unthinkable" around, to, and with "dead" bodies (which, of course, are fully alive actors performing deadness: more on "dead drag" in a future post).   

And how does this have any more artistic merit than dead baby jokes?  Well, if you have any tolerance for dead baby jokes (God bless them!), I imagine it's rare that you are actually visualizing a real baby (let alone one that you have known, loved, etc) being processed in blenders, falling out of trees, getting fetal alcohol syndrome, etc.  Completely disconnected from any social realities (our real fears of infant mortality, for example), these jokes titillate on a purely intellectual level with a baby-shaped-symbol serving as a placeholder for all of the grotesque abuse.  We laugh at the transgression because we are smart enough to know that it is transgression.  The dead baby jokes point to the taboo and let us share a laugh at its expense, somehow reaffirming the taboo's validity in the process.  Yes yes, it is wrong to put babies in blenders or to even think about doing that.  

Something about theatricalizing these taboos, though, is able to make the transgression seem more real.  The human body, live on stage in front of you: you can't replace that with a baby-shaped-symbol.  This is why the dead baby scene in the Scottish play can be so very chilling; we have been asked to accept this baby (or rag doll or bunraku puppet or whatever) as a real baby and suddenly it becomes very hard to laugh at the unspeakable violence done to it.  But maybe, just maybe, if you repeat that scene a few dozen times or score it with "Hit me, baby, one more time," you can pull it just far enough into the realm of the ridiculous that it not only still possesses its visceral wrongness but also gives us the distance to examine that viscera and say: why do I instinctively react this way? To paraphrase James Kincaid in Child Loving, visceral reactions love to masquerade as untutored, universal, and otherwise bio-evolutionary-psychological "reals."  More often that not, however, these so-called "pure" reactions are as socially constructed as contemporary norms of beauty.  Now, that said, humans are social creatures who spend their days processing the world through social constructs so we're certainly not suggesting that anything we ever do on stage is intended to lead people to negate the belief systems that structure these responses.  I guess we just think that we'll all be a lot healthier if we are reminded and reminded often that (most) taboos are as variable as our weather has been this fall.  

Friday, November 14, 2008

Died laughing

Cheeks.  Still.  Hurting.  From.  Tuesday's.  Rehearsal.

In rehearsal it is often hard to tell if something is absolutely rib-bruisingly hysterical because you have a) discovered a comic moment so pure and undeniable that all audience members will be helpless to escape its contagion or b) found something that will be funny to you and only you because you know the actors very well and/or you are filling in necessary contextual blanks that actually allow the gag to make sense.

Honestly: either way, I left Tuesday's rehearsal feeling like the luckiest guy in the world.  I was actually paid (very little, it's true, but still...) to laugh so hard that internal damage was more than likely.

Though these might be famous last words, I think we may have actually tip-toed up to a workable process for Theatre Is Dead.  In the past, with the notable exception of The Man Who Laughs (which had no spoken text and was therefore immune to this particular issue), we've struggled to find theatrically viable ways to introduce text into the process.  Right now, scene fragments are trickling in as fast as Kiran can write them, and it was important to me that, as we experimented with her text in rehearsal, we didn't lose the commedia-esque stylization and physical comedy vocabulary we have been exploring in November.  Usually, we spend a few weeks exploring style-work, add the text in, get paralyzed by psychological analysis of the scripts, and wait for weeks before actors can actually feel enough ownership to begin exploring the scenes in their bodies again.  This is no good.  There has to be a way to explore style, character, relationships, physical space, and text together without one getting compromised.  

I'm hoping that the solution lies in rethinking what the "unit" of work is.  In prior shows, when rehearsing a scene, we might work page by page, or french scene by french scene, or by clusters of beats.  We may start by staging that unit silently, finding strong actions to communicate the character's objectives.  Problem #1 is that these actions are often quite "psychological;" they express the character's mental state but don't necessarily mesh well with the style in which we eventually intend to play.  Eventually, we'll layer the text in and on comes problem #2 when the physical actions dull and the actors become statues with scripts in hand.  

So, to avoid both problems we've changed the way we draft a scene's realization.  Instead of breaking scenes down arbitrarily or by psychological "units," we've tried breaking down in chunks more appropriate to the performance style.  As a vaudeville of sorts, the smallest unit of rehearsable action in Theatre Is Dead is an "act" (Not as in, "Act 1: Scene 3" but as in a "magic act").  Instead of viewing an entire scene as an "act" unto itself, we're breaking it up into many different smaller "acts" which we are, in the tradition of commedia dell'arte, calling "lazzi."  So in Tuesday's rehearsal we rehearsed "Lazzo of the Jacket," in which Dave's character tries to switch jackets with a corpse.  Before we even showed him the text of the scene in which this lazzo would appear, Dave improvised the given circumstances of the bit.  Because it was broken down as an "act," and not a "unit" of psychological thought, the same stylistic rules applied: exaggerated physicality, complicity with the audience, clown logic, etc.  

What Dave created through his improvisation was directly usable in the scene itself once we added text.  The action doesn't "mickey-mouse" the text because, unlike the actions that usually emerge from our silent scenework, it was not created to reveal hidden subtext; Dave's "Lazzo of the Jacket" was created specifically to amuse the audience.  In this model it is up to playwright, dramaturg, and director to lead the actor to lazzi that will, when complemented with text, create complexity (or at least, excess), character, and humorous juxtaposition.  

I guess the simple moral from all of this is: each aesthetic demands a drafting style befitting its ends.  You can't create a sculpture if you start with brush and palette.  Further, the tools you'll eventually use to shape the marble or clay or chickenwire or whatever will determine not only the final aesthetics but how those aesthetics affect the receiver of the work.  If you're hunting for new aesthetics and new responses, sometimes you need to invent (or repurpose) new tools, new materials.

Who knows if the seeds of these thoughts will be of any use to us in future projects.  Life in the lab is always interesting: experimental drug X may work on patient Y but not on patient Z.  But something will work for patient Z; you just need the time and the resources to figure out what that might be...

For my next trick...

...I will make a press release appear out of thin air.

Saturday, November 01, 2008

New show, new process

As with each new Stolen Chair collective creation, Theatre Is Dead and So Are You, presents us with a radically new rehearsal challenge, one which our past productions have prepared us for only insofar as they have helped us build a language to talk about what's working and what's not. Stepping into the lab today with Stolen Chair veterans Alexia, Liza, David, Emily, and Kiran, all I really knew with any conviction was that I wanted to push our characterizations to stylized grotesques and I wanted to use elements of Commedia dell'Arte to test and develop bits that will eventually become "acts" in our vaudevillian funeral.

I've been working with Alexia and David for more than 4 years now and Liza for over 2.  Cackled my ass off though as they surprised me again and again and again today.  We spent the first half of rehearsal attacking character from a few different angles: from prose descriptions, from photographs, outside-in, inside-out, upside-down and everything in between.  Tried to capture it all on video but they had the nerve to let their impulses take them out of frame.  How dare they!

After lunch (during which I decided that my clothes just didn't have enough black bean sauce on them), we came back to lazzi and concetti, some fun throwbacks to my Commedia training.  What's pretty funny here, though, is that I think this developmental process will more closely mirror Commedia training than our masked Commedia dell'Artemisia.  As of this moment, I imagine most of the elements that will eventually find their way into the script and onto the stage at the Connelly this January will begin their lives as improvised Commedia-esque scenarios.  While Stolen Chair actors have always collaborated intensely on the playwriting and directing processes of our productions, offering compositions to create plots, physical worlds, kinesthetic dynamics and more, Kiran has never had the opportunity to script with quite so much support from improvising performers and the only other project on which I've been able to cull my staging from moments of actorly inspiration has been Kinderspiel.  

Theatre is dead.  Long live theatre.