Tuesday, April 25, 2006

It Adds Up--an explanation

It Adds Up was billed as "a comedic slice-of-life story with socio-political commentary" with the caveat "done in Brechtian/Meisneresque realism." For the first and last time, I am going to break that down.

Comedic: As opposed to comedy---a very deliberately chosen word. It's funny, but not strictly so. I nearly called it a dramedy, but a) that makes it sound more like a drama, which it is, but it's not necessarily more of a drama than a comedy. Then there's the assumption that drama is serious and comedy is frivolous, so a dramedy would be thought of, in these terms, as a serious play with frivolous elements. But my comedy is just as serious as any drama could ever hope to be. It is not an escape, a "relief," but a deliberate tool utilized to elicit a number of reactions from spectators; and b) my advisor wouldn't let me.

Slice-of-life: I have always loved slice-of-life, or day-in-the-life, stories. They are so infrequently made, and even less frequently made well. This form is a powerful tool to allow the spectators to connect with real characters that can be developed more fully without the obstacle of having a specific, linear, beginning-middle-end story to relay. Two of my biggest inspirations in this genre are the films The Same Side of Rejection Street (written and directed by S. G. Collins) and Chicago Cab. I have written about this form before, in A Rant On Junebug And Its Cinematic Siblings.

One-act: The play is an hour long and composed of 10 scenes.

Socio-political commentary: Our social and political realities are rarely clearly divided. I am attempting to modernize the second-wave feminist slogan "the personal is political" by blurring the boundary between the two even further, so that that phrase becomes redundant. I also want to acknowledge the social as another influential aspect of life, related to and connecting the personal and the political. The political world is composed of social relations, which are composed of individuals who are defined by and inextricably linked to their respective social relations and political worlds. It's a cycle, or a spiral if you will, as opposed to a continuum or an overlapping binary.

I chose to qualify the play "with socio-political commentary" instead of calling it a "socio-political play" because it is, ultimately, and primarily, a personal story, connected to the socio-political as all stories are to some degree or another. I do not wish to shove my political ideals down people's throats, but rather engage them in the process of critical thought by presenting them with a story with clear political under/overtones and allowing them to decide for themselves how they wish to approach the ideas: They can buy them, be critical of them, dismiss them, consider them. I do not want the spectators to be passive receivers of ideas, but rather I want to encourage them to choose their level of political engagement with the world of the play.

Meisner: Sanford Meisner was an acting coach that developed the Meisner technique of acting. It was a response to and critique of Stanislavki's method, which stressed the application of the actor's own emotions---based on the memory recall of experiences that elicited these respective emotions---into their characters. Essentially, then, the emotions the actors portrayed never belonged (or at least, never initally belonged) to the character, but rather, to the actor. Meisner thought this idea was bunk and proposed that the objective of acting was "to live truthfully under imaginary circumstances." With this as his thesis, he developed a technique which stressed uninhibited passage of impulse between actors. This technique allows for a call-and-response approach to character development and relationships and an improvisational approach to expressing the myriad emotions and reactions one's character goes through over the course of the play. Because It Adds Up is a character-based play with lots of telegraphic dialogue, the Meisner technique was a useful tool to get the actors in a mindset that was both "on the same page" with one another as well as having a tactical approach to the play's text, characters, and inter-character dynamics.

Brecht: Bertolt Brecht single-handedly revolutionized modern theater. No, really, he did. His epic theater was a response to and critique of the realism and elitism of the mainstream theater of his day. It was a uniquely political theater that involved the audience in understanding its meaning. Epic theater says that the purpose of a play, above its entertainment value and instead of the imitation of reality, is to present ideas and invite the audience to make judgments on them. In epic theater the spectators should always be aware that they are watching a play so that they can engage critically in the presented ideas.

The production of It Adds Up probably should have been called "Brechtianish" because it borrows only certain elements from epic theater. The script isn't Brechtian at all, only the set and staging is. I encouraged the actors to bring their own dynamics with their fellow actors---discovered through the Meisner exercises---into the world of the play. Essentially, the objective was that the actors be both themselves and the characters onstage, combining Brechtian alienation (the actors portraying themselves not as sympathetic characters, but as actors playing characters) with more traditional acting techniques that involve complete artifice and immersion into the character. The purpose of this was both associative and dissociative with Brecht's philosophy: In order to gain an individual political view of the show, I wanted the spectators to be personally invested in the play by identifying with the characters and the actors playing the characters by seeing the similarities between them (character and actor) and thus all of them (character and actor and spectator). The play can be viewed as microcosmic and parallel to other lives, through its specificities and universalities. The connections between the actors, characters, and spectators can also be viewed in this way: We connect with others in both specific and general ways. It Adds Up hoped to achieve both in order to reach the maximum amount of people.

Another Brechtian element the show steals were signs. Signs that interrupt and summarize the action of the play are another tool to take away from the strict realism of the play's text. I used signs---combined with music, another Brechtian flair---as markers to divide scenes, that stated the upcoming scene's title; i.e., "Scene 2: Olivia Chills Out After Work," "Scene 9: Marie Has Another Theory."

The third and final thing borrowed from Brecht is a minimal set. The stage consisted mainly of two stationery sets---the coffeeshop and the living room, where the majority of the play's action takes place. The actors moved about the sets in between scenes, often with no illusion of an entrance or exit, and there was no shift in lighting---not black- or brown-outs in between scenes or focuses highlighting the action. This allowed for a continual break in the realistic aspects of the play during every transition; it was an interruption, a reminder that the spectators are observing theater, no real life, just in case they forgot and got too involved in the narrative.

Realism: I do not think that being accessible and interpretive are mutually exclusive. I believe one can create complex mindful political theater with a clear message and undertones without resorting to confusing and convoluted avant-garde.

It Adds Up--a writer/director review

Last weekend was the double-evening double-bill of my and my comedy partner Jill Summerville's senior project productions.

Overall, the audience responded really well, particularly as the show progressed and the characters developed and became familiar---such as the case with character-based theater. A lot of the laughs I had calculated, but there were some surprises---ones I knew were funny but had not necessarily expected such a big reaction to.

The surprise big laughs were:

OLIVIA. But I don’t like boys.
MARIE. You do sometimes.
OLIVIA. That was a phase.

OLIVIA. I met someone and might have a thing going.
BOBBY. Might?
OLIVIA. It’s still too early to tell.
BOBBY. A nice boy?
OLIVIA. You got half of it right.
BOBBY. A mean boy?

OLIVIA. This woman is driving me crazy.
MARIE. Sandy?
OLIVIA. Is there another woman in my life that constantly mind-phucks me?

During Duffy-as-Olivia's monologue, the place was silent, still, and tense. I got a little choked up. I didn't notice if anyone else did---I was too close to the front. I am working toward the theatrical goal of making people laugh and cry at the same time. I mentioned this to India-as-Sandy, when she wasn't sure if one of her scenes was supposed to be funny or sad. "Both!" I said. That can be difficult and uneasy for spectators (and actors, for that matter), which is why there's a need to work them up to it, by encouraging them to laugh and cry---separately---a few times before the simultaneity.

OLIVIA. Sometimes I want to do the same thing, you know? Just leave this shitty job and this shitty city and... I don’t know. Where would I go? Where did she go? Did she end up in a better place? A worse one? I feel like I want to follow her and yet there’s so much... uncertainty. I am not complacent, I just... Sometimes I’m just afraid. Ok? Is that ok? Sometimes I just want to not move, to just stop and stay in one place forever and just not move. (Pause.) I could live like this. I could be comfortable.

After the show, I was hounded, as writers and directors and writer-directors are, with nothing but positive responses. People had really responded to it, on a personal level. They went beyond just liking it because it was "fun" and expressed gratitude to bringing up a lot of the issues in such a personal and accessible way. They liked the political ideas fused with every-day life, and the likability and empathetic nature of the characters, and identified with at times really specific points. The casting was commended, the soundtrack praised, the set elements questioned---in a good way; I was able to go all Brechtian philosophy on it.

LOUISE. Don’t you just wish the sadness would go away?
BOBBY. I used to think it would.
LOUISE. No shit! I was so damn idealistic when I was younger. I mean, I was pretty miserable then, too, but I thought it would get better. I thought it was temporary—everything was temporary. It didn’t matter how much I hated my life, because—I was still young. I still had time. I was taught to believe it would get better. We all were. You know—the “long dark twenties” and all.
BOBBY. “He sized things up, he was dismayed, at how the years had flown by so fast.”
LOUISE. Pardon?
BOBBY. It’s a song called “Long Dark Twenties”. By Paul Bellini? (LOUISE shrugs.) Never mind. Anyway. I always find myself jealous of people who have their shit together more than I do. After Felicia left, things just kind of fell apart for me. I never felt like I got back up on my feet...
LOUISE. “I’ll be back upon my feet, chase the morning sun to find my one and only you.”
BOBBY. Pardon?
LOUISE. It’s a song. By The Monkees.
BOBBY. Oh. (Pause as they share a flirty, shy, somewhat awkward smile.)
LOUISE. Anyway. Continue.
BOBBY. Well basically, I always assumed everyone else had it all figured out. But now I’ve realized that no matter how people present themselves, no one’s ever really... settled.

I kind of wish more of it had been questioned, so I could have explained a lot of the obscure references, stylistic choices, connections, etc. But in many ways the piece speaks for itself. It can be read both as a nuanced complex statement or as a straight-forward, politically-motivated slice-of-life story.

OLIVIA. I think I’m going to be a lonely spinster my whole life.
MARIE. Oh. What makes you say that?... Wait never mind. Stupid question.
OLIVIA. You know though, most of the time I think it’s ok.
MARIE. To be lonely?
OLIVIA. The spinster part. Like Vanessa Redgrave in that movie, Deja Vu, you remember that one? The vagabond spinster.
MARIE. (Dreamily.) The gadabout.
OLIVIA. “Gadabout”!? What the hell does that mean?
MARIE. Like a traveling hedonist, a pleasure-seeking vagabond.
OLIVIA. Wow. Good one. Did you learn that at college?
MARIE. She was hot in that, ole Vanessa.
OLIVIA. She sure was.
MARIE. (Pause.) “Spinster”. That is pretty cool.
OLIVIA. It’s wicked cool. I want to go all postmodern and identity politics and reclaim that word.
MARIE. (Laughs.) Even though it hasn’t really been offensive for like fifty years?

I still want to fine-tune the script, after seeing how my actors played with the text (with my permission)---they hit a lot of things that I wasn't able to, being too subjectively absorbed. Then I'm thinking of expansion or maybe sequel. Probably sequel. The sitcomy element of the play was something else remarked upon by a few people---one said, "I kept wanting to see the next episode."

I don't know if it'd be as good without the actors---yes, the writing. They helped tremendously. I cast them based on the 10-minute version of the play, which we all read at the beginning of the term. I had them do improv games and we brainstormed ideas. Many good ideas didn't make it---time constraints, mostly---but the ones that did were absolute gems and I couldn't have imagined what the show would have looked like without their input. A much different thing, and probably not as good. Collaboration and collectivity is where it's at!---even if it's not in a strictly pure form. So I thank my cast---it was our project, not just mine.

There'll be an encore presentation of the show, at the Antioch Area Theatre, on Friday, April 28 at 5pm. It will be opened by The Pathological Upstagers. Information: (937) 769-1030.