A Dream Play

I feel I've been here before. I know I've been here before. Certain themes are emerging from a weekly playread, and one of them goes a little something like this: I imagine August Strindberg's A Dream Play blew minds when it premiered in 1901. A trippy hallucination of a dream state, it navigates a territory between music and theatre, eschewing narrative in favor of theme and tone. It is a disorienting read, as perspectives shift and stages are described which seem unbuildable. It is a mind poem, so throughly different than the naturalism he had built his career on with works like Miss Julie and The Father.

But it's not blowing my mind now. Could Wilson or Lepage have existed before Strindberg? Of course not ... but having seen them, Strindberg's first cracks in the naturalistic shell seem archaic and fumbling. Though there are moments of pure dream logic, too much gets filtered again through the logical mind and turned into on-the-nose symbolism that is heavy handed and unsubtle.

.... But I'd still love to have been in that 1901 Opening Night audience.

Living In The Present Tense

Honestly, I shouldn't have picked this play. Not because it's a bad script - far from it. It's just that reading Living In The Present Tense by ian pierce is a profoundly strange experience of cognitive dissonance. I can't write about this script as a script because I can't step back far enough from that strangeness. "Cognitive dissonance" is the experience of holding two contradictory ideas simultaneously, so I suppose it's not quite the right word. I'm holding two contradictory timelines simultaneously.

I know this cast and creative team intimately. Or, rather, knew. These are all folks I worked with, and then separated from when I left Chicago. Theatre's odd like that (Anne Bogart talkes a bit about it here): we form these incredibly tight relationships, when then can become so transitory when we move on to the next show or next town. This is a play done by my theater family, and I can't help but see that alternate timeline where I'm not simply reading this script but am a part of it. Hence the cognitive temporal dissonance. I know this script almost as well as if I'd been there, but I'm also coming at it completely fresh and unawares.

This script - more than any this year - proves that a published playscript is a piece of amber, fossilizing and preserving the living contents it describes. It is a snapshot of a moment in time, the remains of an ephemeral event. I can almost see this production, hear every word, see each movement clearer than if I was watching a videotape of the proceedings.

The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged)

As I stated when setting this month up, I am very thankful for the complete works of William Shakespeare.

I am not, however, so thankful for The Complete Works Of William Shakespeare (Abridged) by Jess Winfield, Adam Long, Daniel Singer .

I don't know I have a whole lot to say about it, either. I know it's incredibly popular, and have no idea how I've never seen it. I'm sure that, given enough actor charisma, it can play. But as a script it is ossification in action, a regretful setting down of lazzi that were probably great improvs, but are now simply Someone Else's Schtick. As a show ... I get the joke, but I suppose I can't image why I'd want to watch this condensed Hamlet over Tom Stoppard's The Fifteen Minute Hamlet.

Looking Forward

Here we are at the end of the road. Four more to go, and and I'll call it a year.

I won't be doing this again in 2010, so this last month is a goodbye to 2009 and a welcome to whatever comes next.

I initially considered using this month to look back on other plays by my favorite writers of the year ... but instead I want to look forward. I've made no secret that I fully intend to get back behind the producing/directing chair and I hope to make that happen in the next year. I've also made no secret that I am deeply inspired by the task of breathing fresh, clear life into classic work. I'm inspired by things like David Cromer's Our Town, the work of The Hypocrites, the Goodman's O'Neill Festival, and other reinventions of plays we might otherwise roll our eyes at. It's not something you can force: that's how you end up with crappy concept theatre like "Moon For The Misbegotten ... on the moon!" One of the keys is reading and reading and reading until that spark fires and you can suddenly see through the layers of accumulated cultural detritus.

December 7: A Doll's House by Henrik Ibsen I won't be reading the version I've linked to, but an unpublished new translation by acclaimed local playwright Eric Samuelson. Can I read this without thinking of the recent Mabou Mines version?

December 14: Machinal by Sophie TreadwellIt's attracted both Moisés Kaufman and Sean Graney. Good enough for me.

December 21: The Children's Hour by Lillian Hellman This is the kind of play that fascinates me, a play with an excellent skeleton that's become neglected because we think we know what it is. (I'm also reading it because I happen to know some fantastic young actresses. I believe part of successful producing is, in part, figuring out your resources and using them effectively.)

December 28: Hamlet by William Shakespeare .... because it's Hamlet.

The Laramie Project

Looking back, Rapier said the first "Laramie Project" changed Plan-B in every possible way.

"We really found our voice as a company that socially conscious theater really was what we do well. ... It was a unique, moving experience for everyone involved. It wasn't just another show," Rapier said.

I'm very thankful for Plan-B, and glad I finally found an excuse to read The Laramie Project by Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. I don't know it put the company "on the map" ... but it sure established a new map.

It's a daunting read, encountering it on the page: a sprawling list of characters and settings and perspectives. It's like the transcript of a documentary that was never made. Mary Dickson's Exposed is a similar kind of play: excerpts of interviews all very true-to-life. It's a fascinating form, this cross between journalism (or New Journalism) and theatre, especially when it includes the journalist(s). Laramie, in particular, gives a feeling of objectivity: a feeling that this is direct truth, that even a huge prose nonfiction work would be wrought with biases that don't appear here, because everyone is simply speaking for themselves.

I was lucky enough to be invited to a discussion with Moises Kaufman when he was in town for The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, An Epilogue, and this very feeling of ovjectivity is something he addressed. Because , of course it's bullshit ... in the best possible meaning of the word. The stage docudrama feels objective but once you cut, edit and arrange you are creating context and thereby commentary. There no sleight-of-hand here, as it's the nature of all journalism and all history. It's a fascinating form, and perhaps the perfect form for a socially active theatre that foregrounds issues. Theatre is a medium, not a message ... we needn't restrict ourselves to fiction any more than film or prose does.

Perhaps it's just my own reading experience this year, but I wonder how intentional this is:

The Laramie Project, Act III
The stage is now empty except for several chairs stage right. They occupy that half of the stage. [...] As the lights come up, several actors are sitting there dressed in black.

Our Town, Act III
On the right-hand side, a little right of the center, ten or twelve ordinary chairs have been placed in three openly spaced rows facing the audience. These are graves in the cemetery.

Riders To The Sea

The month of Thanksgiving kicks off with the wonderful Riders to the Sea by J. M. Synge (you can also find a free copy here). It's part of the work I'm doing in the Plan-B/Meat & Potato Lab, work for which I am incredibly thankful. There has been a perfect storm of events this year that kicked my theatrical ass into high gear, making the second half of 2009 unexpectedly fruitful in terms of my development. The Lab is one of them.

Now ... for Riders To The Sea. It's hard to encapsulate what I'm thinking about this play but at the forefront is the idea of compression. It's 10 pages in my edition, an extremely short script that probably runs at about 20-25 minutes maximum. There's such a tremendous amount of content in those pages, more than many modern plays manage in two hours (or an intermissionless 90 minutes) of stage time. There's been a continuing discussion in the comic book world for a while now about "decompressed storytelling", versus the traditional forms of the 50's and 60's that packed immense amounts of story and concept into each page (start here and here for some background). Probably the clearest example of theatrical decompression would be some of the work Robert Wilson does, stretching moments across time until they reform into metaphor. (In fact, I'd love to see a Wilson Riders To The Sea ... that'd be pretty mind-blowing.)

It has been said that the hallmark of poetry is a compression, the idea that every word chosen must be unpackable and crammed with meaning. In that case, Riders is a pure stage poem where each moment has layers of meaning and nothing is wasted. I seem to spend a lot of time on ten-minute plays lately, and it's a shock what you see what really can be achieved in under 10 pages of typeset text.