Friday, February 24, 2012
Early Plays (NYC)
Eugene O’Neil! The Wooster Group!! Richard Maxwell!!! I can’t help but tell you, I was PSYCHED for Weds show. Having never actually seen anything by these three entities, the thought of getting to see them all at once was a bit overwhelming. But I was sure I could maintain. The trip to Brooklyn took a little longer than I expected, so I slid into my seat with only a few moments to spare. (St Ann’s Warehouse, the space, by the by, is GORGEOUS!!!!!) The set (which Maxwell recycled from Wooster’s other productions of O’Neill’s works) was perfect. It’s hinges, and handles and ropes, and even ramps, gave the set the perfect feeling of being on a boat, without the realism of being on a boat. (Among other things, I am more and more realizing about myself that I love bare stages, or staged with minimal sets. This one was exactly that.) And, I was pleasantly surprised that I happened to come on a talk back night. (I know, talk backs are notoriously if-y things. They are either really good and give a lot of information about the process used to create the show. Or they feature a lot of questions asking things like: You all did so wonderfully, but how did you learn all those lines? And, while I realize that question is important to those who ask it and I therefore do no fault them for the asking of it, the answer doesn’t help me as an artist understand what I just saw in the context of what the company was doing.)
Well, I have just spent an entire paragraph telling you nothing at all really… I guess I should get into it.
Then the show started. The first few moments of it were visually stunning. I was prepared to love it. Then the next few moments happened. And then the ones after that. And no one was looking at each other really (characters I mean). They all kept delivering their lines to the audience. Occasionally, one would glance at another, but… And they were all talking in this super jilted way – almost as if they we reading a phonetic alphabet instead of using an accent. And somewhere in the jilted talking, and the not looking at each other, I began to wonder if they had any idea what they were saying.
Ok, more true confession by Reesa. I have a thing when I see plays, it’s like a nervous tick. It comes up the most in Shakespeare. If an actor doesn’t understand what they’re saying, I fall asleep. I know that’s horrible, but it’s what I do.
I mention that because I suddenly realized that I was getting very sleepy, but wasn’t quite asleep – which means they had some idea of what they were saying. But still, I couldn’t quite put my finger on what was happening.
Early Works is three distinct short plays, and I feel it necessary to talk about the second one by itself before I go much further. The first and the third suffered from very similar problems, and I will talk about those in just a second. But the second was the only one that, I felt, held any saving grace. First off, the scene of the second show is in the far up stage right corner of the stage in a very small playing space. And, if I am honest, removing the action so far from the audience helped to draw the audience in. It also helped to blunt the lack of accent/accent that was the stylistic choice of the show. The show takes place in the middle of a squall, which they have created with the use of a fog marching and lighting on the main part of the stage. Cool effect happened, the fog, of course, drifted into the audience, making us as much a part of what was happening on the ship as the actors and characters. And finally, it is mostly between two of the characters, making a lack of connection on their part virtually impossible.
So, that was the good one. The other two, I’ve already dropped hints about. First, there was this weird pattern of speech – not just in the phrases the characters were using, but also in the way each word was actually being pronounced. To be honest, it sounded like what happened that semester I had to take the class that tried to teach me the phonetic alphabet. Not only was that a nightmare for me (yay learning disabilities!) but it also made my speech in that class sound something akin to a six year old reading a hop on pop book in a made up language – slowly, haltingly, unsure of the way it should be pronounced, and so over pronouncing everything. Or maybe just someone with very little speaking confidence being asked to read a sort story cold to a group of people. At first, I thought that perhaps it was one or two actors doing a bad accent, but the further the show went on, the ore I realized that, no, that was a choice for these characters to live in a world in which people spoke like that. On the plus side – the choice was followed through by every actor and at every moment in the show. On the down side, the choice was so distracting that I spent half the time trying to figure out where the character was supposed to be from so I would know what they were supposed to sound like…
Additionally, there was an overall disconnect between the characters to the other characters. While I am the first to tell you that I love me some stillness in theatre (no really, I think, as a whole, actors on stage move WAY more that humans in reality do), the way this play handled stillness was not it either. Mostly because I felt there were a lot of stand and deliver moments – in which the actors were declaring their lines to the audience, instead of sharing it with us or with another character.
And then the talk back came.
Now look, I don’t like to say that other directors are “wrong” per say. And I won’t say it this time either. I will say this – this is a direct quote from Richard Maxwell on his goals as a director: My primary goal as a director is getting the text across to you in as untainted a way as possible so you can make the decision as to if it’s funny or sad or…
And then I knew. The world these characters were living in had been stripped down, not to the language (which is what I do when I direct Shakespeare) but to the words. And that feeling of someone reading me a short story was pretty close to what, I think, he was trying to get at. Ok, in that sense, he did exactly what he intended to.
Here’s the thing. I hated it. And I know why. It’s the lack of connection. I don’t need you to tell me how to feel or when to feel in a text. But I do need the characters to care about something more than the individual words. And these guys didn’t.
What I disliked so much about it is that it felt like nothing mattered. And I wondered why I was watching what I watched.
What I realized that night, I’ve spent the last few blogs talking about audience as actor and as part of the show. I have completely neglected to think about connection as an integral part of theatre. I realized that in order for the audience discussion to even begin, a more basic piece has to be that connection. It lies in every aspect of storytelling that I am beginning to realize I think is the basic form of theatre. I believe that the actors must be connected to the words, and I think it has to go beyond just the way they are pronounced. I believe that the actors must have a connection to the characters they portray. I believe that the actors must have a connection to the other actors on stage. I believe that they must have a connection to the story they are trying to tell. And I believe that the actors must have a connection with the audience itself.
I am unwilling to say that without them you don’t have theatre. Maybe you do, maybe you don’t. Maybe that’s what performance art is? Or maybe we just call it theatre I don’t like?
But, I can tell you, it wasn’t just me. I know this because someone else said at the talkback (he was a sweet old man – who would normally have been asking about how did you learn all those lines). However, that night, he said – “I get that these words are over 100 years old. Did you ever think of updating them? I felt really disconnected for what was happening, like it was too old.” I wanted so much to get up and say – thank you sir! But it’s not the language that made you feel the disconnect. It was, I think, the disconnect from the actors themselves. The very fact none of them seemed to ever look at anyone on stage. Those small and subtle things are hugely felt by audiences. And, if you are using them on purpose, for specific moments, it can be a very strong choice. But when used by a whole production? It just makes the show hard to watch…