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.

Thursday, March 02, 2006

Rehearsals proper have begun!

We've already had two rehearsals this week. First was on Monday, when we all got together and read the script, which is done except for the lsat scene. Afterward, we blocked three scenes. Last night (Wednesday), blocked a few more.

Due to everyone's schedule, I haven't been able to block the scenes in order, so it's kind of weird to visualize the whole thing. At the same time, I don't think that's necessary- it's coming together really well regardless, already. A main reason I'd want to block in order would be for my actors to get into the flow of it better; however, because of the process already, their having been such an integral part of the development of the script and of their characters, they're kind of already there, naturally.

We've been blocking in Birch Space, a large common area in one of the dorms, until I can get into the theatre and build a set (which may not happen until the week before tech week, at the latest, because there are other shows going on in there. Yea, you heard me, R&P people- *raspberry!*). It's been interesting having to improvise a set with what's there- but fortunately it's close enough.

One intense scene we blocked Monday evening, I got a little veklempt. I didn't realize how intense it was. I'm hoping it's not too intense- it doesn't come out of nowhere, but the build-up to that certainly deviates from the feel of the rest of the play. I think we can pull it off, though. I love that my actors are so engaged in the process; even though the script's done, we're continuing to brainstorm together ways of making it stage-worthy. Last night in particular, for a few of the characters whose roles and relationships are relatively ambiguous in the script, we're thinking about how to create more complex character through spacial relationships and whatnot, as well as with their own understandings of their characters. No matter how small the character, they're never one-dimensional. That's how I want to play it, anyway, I just need to figure out how to play it.

This has been an awesome process so far. Last week was my professional directorial debut with The Vagina Monologues; not only was that successful and confidence-boosting, it's over- so I can focus all (well, most) of my creative energy into this project. Hooray!

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Rehearsal 2/6

Last night (Monday, February 6) was the first official rehearsal for "It Adds Up". I use the term rehearsal lightly; there's still not a full script. So instead we did some improv games, character work, and Meisner.

  • The warm-up consisted of stretching and everyone telling one good thing about their day, and one bad thing about their day (shamelessly stolen from Dylan's "Robocalypse").
  • We all told Alex, the actor who couldn't make the last meeting, about his character.
  • To a nice musical playlist I had them walk around the room, explore the geography, fill the space. I then asked them to walk around the room as their character, and asked them to think about how their character would regard the room, what draws their attention, what choices they make, etc. I asked them to begin interacting with other characters: say hello, shake hands. Do you know this person? Is this your first time meeting them? What's the situation?
  • I then had them stop, get back into themselves, and told them about Meisner technique and why I liked it. I asked Julie to be my lovely assistant. We proceeded to bring them through the basic steps to get into the technique, then had them do it. They caught on really quick, so I decided to hit step 4, which I had originally planned to wait till next week to do.
  • Naturally, as is the case with Meisner technique, as soon as I stopped them and tried to move onto the next one, they began to repeat me...
  • The next bit was to do improv scenes with the lead, Duffy. Each character had a go with her. Some amazing material was gathered, both for my scripting ideas as well as their personal character development.
  • I asked them what they'd learned about their character from these exercises. More good stuff.

    They inspired me once again. An amazing group they are! Very helpful and supportive of me in the writing process. We'll meet again next Monday, and I've given myself a deadline of the following week to finish the script.

  • Wikipedia's entry on Meisner technique
  • Wikipedia's entry on Sanford Meisner

    Photos. Click on the thumbnail for the full image. (Thanks to Julie for the camera!)

    They all wanted me to tell you that this is their blog debut- all of them, except for Julie, that is.

  • Tuesday, January 31, 2006

    Cast Meeting

    My beautiful cast (in order of appearance): Duffy, Josh, Julie, India, Alex, Haminy, Michael

    Friday evening, the cast, minus one, plus myself, met in Birch Commons (a great meeting place; I may have rehearals there to begin with: it's nice and big and usually empty enough and more geographically convenient than the theatre).

    We introduced ourselves: name, year, major, and the Heather-inspired "If you were in a vending machine, what would you be and why?" All good answers; some took the metaphor quite far, which, though often depressing, was, I suppose, a sign of creativity...

    Then I told them a bit about the project, how it was a 10-minute play I wrote almost a year ago that I was developing into a one-act. I had copies of the original script and we did a read-through, to give them an idea of what to expect and myself an idea of the chemistry of the cast, what dialogue worked or didn't, all that good stuff. The reading went really, really well. The chemistry was natural between all the players; everyone seemed to get into the story, laughing and groaning in all the right places. It made me happy.

    Afterward I told them that if any of them were interested in helping in the writing process, by developing their character and whatnot, I'd love to hear their ideas. We then threw around a few ideas, which I hope to incorporate to some degree or another.

    I still haven't begun writing, instead letting ideas marinate, but that will only last as a valid excuse for so long. ;)

    Thursday, January 26, 2006

    Cast/ Joint Blog

    Auditions for three of the senior projects were held this past Monday. Aside from mild to moderate bouts of confusion, miscommunication, and insanity, it went pretty well. (Jill's and my motto for the evening: "Thank God For Nick.")

    I cast the show, and everyone seems pretty excited about it. 7 roles, 7 actors, I don't have to do ensemble, which I was expecting. (And 2 of the 7 are Mime Troupe intern veterans.)

    I think this'll help spur the writing- and I'm hoping to get some of the actors to participate in the process, such as by helping to develop their character. If they want to. I'm having a meeting with them tomorrow (Friday) to orient everyone to the project.


    I have also decided to open up this blog as a joint blog to interested cast members and others involved. Welcome cast member Julie! Let me know if YOU are interested in joining us crazy bloggers...

    Saturday, January 21, 2006

    Senior Seminar #1

    Yesterday was the first Senior Seminar.

    I called my play "a slice-of-life story with socio-political commentary" and "Brechtian/Meisneresque realism".

    Deliberate pompousness aside, I'd say that's pretty apt.

    Monday, January 16, 2006



    Participate In Antioch Student Productions (Such As My Senior Project)
    Get Theatre Credit If You're A Student

    Auditions open to everyone (not just students) with all levels of acting experience.

    Monday, Jan. 23 '06 @ 7 pm
    Antioch Area Theatre
    920 Corry St, Yellow Springs [mapquest]
    Info/Directions: (937) 769-1030

    Thursday, January 05, 2006

    Senior Project Proposal (Pertinent Excerpts)

    Description Of Project

    My project idea is to expand my 10-minute play, “It Adds Up”, into a one-act and to direct it. In its 10-minute form, the play is about a young woman, Olivia, who works in a coffeeshop in a small city. It’s a slice-of-life story about her struggles, focusing on her being stuck in a job she hates that barely pays the bills.

    In developing it I hope to maintain the basic storyline, but adding more about Olivia’s personal, social, and internal life. Some initial ideas are to expand on the secondary characters and particularly their relationship with Olivia, and put in some monologues—perhaps delivered as asides—which will delve deeper into Olivia’s state of mind.

    In directing the play, I hope to create a realistic, accessible, engaging, and possibly thought-provoking piece that will appeal to a diverse crowd. The cast will consist of one lead role and—currently—six supporting roles, which could be done as an ensemble. The set will be minimal, to help cut down on scene-change stress.

    Other ideas: a Brechtian flair—I have titles for the scenes, and might want to make signs for a crew person to carry out and display in between scenes. Using real people, not necessarily “actors”—part Brechtian, partly a love of natural chemistry; for example, there’s a scene with a married couple. I would like to use a real couple for this, allowing their natural chemistry to come through.

    Why This, Why Now, Why Me, Why God Why

    When first writing this play as a 10-minute last spring, I’d wanted to develop it into a one-act. I thought it was a strong piece and the consensus of those who read it or saw the staged reading (including yourself!) was that they’d like to see it expanded upon. I didn’t get inspired to do it over the summer, but since then have been compulsively brainstorming and developing the character of Olivia, if only mentally. Also, as a life-long writer, I know that time away from a piece can allow one to detach and therefore allow a smoother, more inspired, finishing process. Also, since writing it originally, I have increased my theatre experience (mainly in tech, performing, and producing), thereby giving myself more pragmatic vision.

    Learning Goals & Qualifications

    Why I’m qualified and what I have to learn go hand-in-hand. In the writing process it will be the development of my skills. The bulk of what I’ve written throughout my life has been meant for the page. I have always wanted to write scripts (and later, spoken word), but until taking Playwriting last spring only dabbled in it, and without much confidence. I am now aware that my natural talent as a “silent” writer can be applied to performative writing, with as much practice as possible. And by directing my own work I will be able to see what works and what doesn’t, from a different perspective than if I were performing or not involved in the production.

    My first experience with directing was as a student director for the show I was involved in as part of the San Francisco Mime Troupe workshop. Workshop leader Dan Chumley said I had a natural knack for the craft, which delighted me, seeing as directing has been something I have always been interested in (even before performing and playwriting).

    Since then, I have watched directors work with a student’s eye and I took the Directing Seminar class last term. All this has given me a grasp of the craft which, at this point, I feel can only be developed by actually directing a show. (I’m a learner-by-doer above all else.) It will also give me experience with dealing with actors, scheduling, and the tech/stage aspects of a show which I have experienced from nearly every other side of production. My Antioch education in theatre has, thus far, covered every major branch of theatre work—except directing, which is one of the main things I hope to pursue professionally once I graduate.