Friday, August 24, 2007

I wanna be Dr. Frankenstein

Dr. Frankenstein did some weird science and animated the dead. Seems like folk to talk about the moral and ethical implications of his act, about "what is human" and "what is alive." But I want some cold hard instructions on how to do it myself.

At least, that's how I feel about theater conversations when we start talking about "liveness" or "immersion" or "connections between audience and performers." I feel like we jump past the nuts and bolts and straight to philosophical ruminations.

So let me put my question another way: What are techniques (events, moments...) that you have used as a maker of theater that DEMAND the event occur realtime in front of an audience?

I'm gonna put my own head on a chopping block and say I haven't done it. Not once in seven plays that I let see the light of day (let alone the ones that stay in a deep dark drawer.) Can't think of a single moment.

I'm going to go even farther and say that except for the density of language, all of my work would serve equally well on the large or small screen.

I draw from that a potentially unsettling conclusion: that I am using the density of language as a replacement for the visual palimpsest of film. That is: I'm not writing theater. I'm writing film, and trying to cover up the disconnect between the medium I'm writing for and the medium I'm actually getting produced in, with language.

But I don't want to do that. I wanna be Dr. Frankenstein. So help me out. What are those moments you've created that demand to ...live ....live! LIVE!?

12 comments:

Devilvet said...

Are you a playwright only? Or are you a director as well?

The reason I ask is becuase I think the qualities you're talking about are not in the langauge. They are in the staging.

It is the difference between say identity theft and an actual mugging
;)
seriously though

I'll throw up some basics and watch you all tear them apart...

1) Environmental Theatre
2) Intimacy through proximty - smaller spaces, actors closer to the audience, touching them in the midst of them
3) Spectacle that utilizes non-realism, innovation. Everybody loves a puppet show. Everybody loved those big damn puppets in Defiant Theatre Shows. I'm been fifth row center at the Lion King and when those animals walk down the aisle, you are immersed and it takes a true cynic not to feel something more powerful than that same moment in the movie. Bread and Puppet works best when you are in the space with the puppets and must acknowledge the scale of them.
4) When the audience knows you know they are there, when you share something like a laugh with them. for instance, Direct address to a live audience can not be copied or fully emulated in film. If someone, whether or not they are in character is looking at me in the seat, not towards the audience but actually looking them in the eyes...that is hypnotic that is connective, those can be the best sorts of moments.

Now if the content the story is crap, well then these ideas are useless. But if the words on the page are compelling and are matched with an equally compelling staging that's it...you will touch an audience in a way film will not.

Amy said...

Um . . . maybe some lightning strikes and a Jacob's Ladder . . . Elsa Lanchester . . . ok -- is the joke not translating??

I agree with all of Devilvet's thoughts. Proximity to living, breathing beings in and of itself heightens moments (if, as Devilvet says, those moments are in the story). Surely you have been in an audience when something happened on stage that the audience reacted to viscerally in a way that they wouldn't have watching a movie. I can think of a couple of moments in "August: Osage County" and "Beauty Queen of Leenan."

And while some plays make great movies ("Inherit the Wind") - I think they are separate experiences, each valid.

My tricks, oh, er, techniques that demand realtime are unique because a lot of my stuff has no fourth wall. ("Fuck the Fourth Wall!" Sorry, inside joke and a long story.) So obviously some of my stuff goes beyond direct address to direct conversation. And you can't get that in a movie theater or book.

And what would be wrong with writing for movies? I recently started working on a play that is now clearly a movie script and I'm working on it as such.

Why not write both? Maybe some of your stories are meant to be movies and the ones that cry out for a live audience are meant for the stage. Why did you want them to be plays? Why did you write them for the stage in the first place?

Aaron Carter said...

I haven't directed professionally. But I, like all writers, have bluffed my way through directing a reading.

Your assertion that this is the domain of the director goes straight to the heart of the (intended) purpose of this blog!

While I appreciate your list, I am going to insist that this is the realm of the playwright. That is to say: if a play demands environmental presentation, it should be part of the script. Puppets? Part of the script.

Otherwise the "creative act" moves to the realm of the director. A puppet Three Sisters? That's about the director, not Chekhov.

To put it another way - do you really think the difference between a film script and a theater script is the director?

Aaron Carter said...

Amy,

I don't mean to set up a "one is better than the other" fight here. I just want to hear about specifics that demand the liveness of theater.

I'm all for writing in multiple forms. And I don't see one as inherently superior. I just want to understand what each one does best. And lately, I'm not so sure about that in my chosen form.

You suggested: "Surely you have been in an audience when something happened on stage that the audience reacted to viscerally in a way that they wouldn't have watching a movie."

No. I haven't. And that's my point. I've been in films where people have jumped out of there seat and thrown popcorn. I've been presented when people boo at the screen. I boo. Often.

In other words, I've seen EQUAL audience reaction in both forms.

It's not the audience reaction I'm speaking of here, exactly. I've wept while reading a novel.

I feel that "theatre is live" is kind of a catechism. We repeat it because we believe it and we believe it because we repeat it.

Since an audience has gone electric in a film, and since I've wept while reading, its not about the reaction. Its about the technique. What are we doing with our scripts that demands the form of living presentation?

amy said...

I get it -- I guess the question is kind of moot for me because a lot of my stuff incorporates an actual dialog between audience members and performers and so it would be impossible without realtime "living presentation."

My conundrum is that I want to figure out how to use the audience as a resource -- there is a huge body of experience sitting in the seats and I believe they have a lot to share. I want to find a way to tap that resource beyond the mostly superficial ways interactive and improvisational theater usually do. I'm also struggling with trying to create that same sense of interaction in a serious piece. It seems that as soon as that fourth wall comes down -- everything becomes a comedy.

Devilvet said...

"To put it another way - do you really think the difference between a film script and a theater script is the director?"

No, I think it is in the staging, not the director...if a playwright wants to dictate the staging... fantastic whether or not one thinks that is the realm of the playwright or director or what have you.

One need not be an auteur or a showboatter to utilize the staging tactics i discuss here. the playwright can insist on it on the page (or not)

Environmental staging can be dictated by the playwright such as in M Wellman's Bad Penny, but why not chekov's cherry orchard within the approximation of a cherry orchard (I'm being a little glib here..but I think your example of puppet three sisters was a glib manipulation of my point as well although I can think of a couple of puppet artisans who could do it justice while not making it all about them).

I am a playwright/director (not the other way around). have been know for 10 years.

Are you interested in talking about what makes theatre immersive or a debate over the province of the playwright versus director?

Personally I believe the playwright has the power, the final word (while alive or institutionalized like the beckett estate) but I also think more playwrights should consider directing their own work.

And alot of playwrights don't assert their rights in the realms I've specified (they leave it to a director or producer). Many of them focus only on the words spoken, the density of language or using language as spectacle in a Joycean fashion (there are other verbose fashions, that's just the first one that comes to mind)

My point which is
is that the difference between theater and film is in the staging, in the sculptural possibilities of the 3rd dimension...not in the literary quality of the text

Devilvet said...

The 3rd dimension

Why see a sculpture if you can just see a photo of the sculpture

Think not only of the narrative possibilities.

Think of the sculptural possiblities while staging (playwright or director... I'll say instead dramatist...yeah I like that)

In that lies the difference

What if you thought of yourself as a sculptor first and wordsmith second?

Aaron Carter said...

Amy,

You mentioned "a lot of my stuff incorporates an actual dialog between audience members and performers..."

That's exactly what I'm hoping to hear about. Are you willing to share some specific examples? And I hear you on the no fourth wall = comedy problem.

Devilvet,

My comment about puppet Three Sisters was glib, but I didn't intend it as a manipulation of your point. I intended only to point out that the use of a performance style not inherent in a text means that the techniques which engage "liveness" come from the director, not the writer. No value judgment there.

You're right to call for a distinction between a playwright/director debate and what makes theater immersive. I'm more interested (in this thread) about what makes theater an immersive experience.

I'll take it a step further and ask what tools & techniques are available to the playwright that help bring about that immersion.

Aaron Carter said...

Devilvet,

I tend to think of myself as a storyteller, then a wordsmith. That is, I shape structure, and then I hang pretty words on it.

I like the idea of thinking like a sculptor. I'm going to keep that in mind.

I'm thinking more about this director thing. Between your suggestion that writers should consider directing their own work, and the earlier post about producing your own work... I think its about time I give it a whirl.

(Oh wait - if I post this does that mean I have to do it?)

amy said...

Aaron,

Sure I'll share!

In the play I'm working on now (which I just found out is going to be in the Sat. Series at Chic. Dramatists) characters break the fourth wall, drop character and directly address the audience - they then they drop the dialog and (limitedly) improvise with the audience - referring to things in real time, the weather, what happened that day in the news - hopefully setting up a play-within-a-play-within-a-play-within-a-play. (I'll see if it's successful in October.)

I'm also one of the co-creators of Flanagan's Wake - an interactive show. When the audience enters the theater, the cast members mingle with them in character and treat them as fellow characters in the environment. So an audience member is greeted by something like, "Uncle Frank! I haven't seen you in years . . ." By the time the show actually starts, audience members have a relationship with the characters and are invested. The cast has also mined some information from the crowd and can weave those details into the show. During the course of the show, there are moments when a character has "forgotten" a detail and asks the audience members (who are all assumed to be family and friends) to help out. The cast includes that information and the audience members get to contribute to the play and shape it to some limited extent.

I know that interactive theater has a bad rep and in many cases justifiably so (although I have to admit, I've never seen Tony 'Tina's) but I've experienced some really terrific moments when the audience is included as participants.

I think the NeoFuturists do some amazing things directly involving the audience and I've had some transcendent moments at their shows.

That's why I really want to explore making the line between performers and audience much more porous.

That's the kind of work that demands it being live.

amy said...

I wanted to put in my two cents about directing your own play. I've done both and depending on the play, the director (a good director) can ferret out problems and help enormously.

I think sometimes as the author, we're just too close to the work to stage it. Some things seem self-evident to the playwright that others don't see and a good director will help clarify those moments.

I would heartily recommend producing and I would maybe recommend first finding a director you really trust who has the same sensibilities and work with her/him first as an AD before diving into directing yourself.

I do agree with Devilvet that it's very illuminating to direct your own work and get it up off the page - it will really shape the way you write your next play!

Devilvet said...

"You suggested: "Surely you have been in an audience when something happened on stage that the audience reacted to viscerally in a way that they wouldn't have watching a movie."

No. I haven't. And that's my point. I've been in films where people have jumped out of there seat and thrown popcorn. I've been presented when people boo at the screen. I boo. Often.

In other words, I've seen EQUAL audience reaction in both forms.

It's not the audience reaction I'm speaking of here, exactly. I've wept while reading a novel.

I feel that "theatre is live" is kind of a catechism. We repeat it because we believe it and we believe it because we repeat it."

A challenging statement. All I can say is that I have felt that thing in a live space. I felt it in the Lion King when the animals invaded the audience's space. I have felt it at Richard Foreman shows and Gail Gate Shows while I lived in New York. I felt it when I saw Rick Cluchey perform Krapp in Krapps last tape. I felt it when watching some (not all) Bread and Puppet shows. Steppenwolf's Buried Child production.