52 Weeks, 52 Plays: Week 1

Back in high school my theater department’s office had a giant catalog of scripts. My senior year I decided that I would read a play every week for an entire school year. A lot of those plays I’ve forgotten, a few have burrowed into my brain very deep. But I think the real lasting impact was less any particular show, and more the fact that I felt like it gave me a concentrated bit of time to sit and ruminate on theater, on how I would stage that play, if I would stage that play, what I thought the playwright wanted and whether I would want something similar or different.

2014 has, at least nascently so far, been a year of initiatives.

A few weeks back I was thinking again about plays. Scripts, specifically. Being a deviser I so rarely read “finished” scripts. And I thought that it could be interesting to check back in with the writer-first world that most of my profession lives in. I wanted to know more about contemporary playwriting, what trends are out there, and who the outrageous creators were. But I also wanted that sense again, the time to look at someone else’s idea of theater and to just… react. So I put up a post on the old book of faces asking for play submissions, bound only by the stipulations that it should be something from the last 3 – 4 years with a bonus for female playwrights.  Happily, I got a ton of response.

The public-ness of this blog, another formerly nascent initiative of its own, was very helpful in  keeping me on track with getting writing out back in the earlies of 2013. A rule lover by nature, I liked knowing that I was in a little way publicly accountable for doing what I’d set out to. So I liked the idea of trying to catalog this idea of reading a play a week for the entire year of 2014. I made a list, started thinking about how to organize the endeavor and I start off the very first week with a copy of a play called The Noise by Rachel Bonds.

Here’s the thing though…  I don’t want to write a review of this play.

I am incredibly aware of how subjective a given random day’s awesome-ness or shitty-ness affects my view of a thing. I am also aware that reading an assessment of another’s work will bias future people about that work because you’re either reacting to or against their positive or negative assessment.  So while I don’t think I’m incapable or unqualified to read a play and assess it, I kept thinking, what end am I aiming for? I am certain that this project will not result in Swim Pony suddenly deciding to produce new young American playwrights. I also don’t particularly want the responsibility of advocating for or against another artist’s work. This space, for me, it feels like it’s really for something else.

So I’m trying to shoot instead the kind of feeling that I had back in high school: using a particular play as a springboard to jump start the way about the way I think about theater, what I want to make and see, and how it reminds me of the possibilities of what are out there and what I can imagine could be out there if I were to make it. So without further ado, Swim Pony musings from The Noise.

A synopsis in a just a few lines: The plot of The Noise centers on four characters – Ellie – a 28 year old math teacher who has lost her mother, Amos – a 30 something history teacher with whom Ellie becomes romantically entangled, Bert – Ellie’s father recently remarried and finding a sudden need to tend the garden his last wife once kept, and Janice – Bert’s new wife who is trying to deal with his blocks in processing his previous wife’s death. Ellie and Bert both work to try and deal with their feelings at the loss, Ellie by guarding herself against new love, Bert by an obsessive need to rebuild to the vegetal life his wife once tended. It’s a story about people searching for connections to each other. Added to this is an eerie/magical presence of The Noise – a form that emerges from darkness and beckons Ellie into the most quiet, silent and still places in the world and in herself.

This is in many ways, a play about grief – a daughter who has lost her mother, a man who has lost a wife. But for me it was equally as much a play that explores darkness and silence. I was captivated by this idea throughout the reading, how we can create a performance that invites an audience into such a deep and still place. I wondered as I read if it possible to ask the audience to do what The Noise asks of Ellie, to invite them into a “moment of utter and complete stillness.”

There’s a kind of anticipated rhythm of drama that I feel in most of the theater I see. Working in the field you can sometimes start to sense a kind predictable structure. Even in the messiest of emotions, there is a kind of arc that becomes ingrained – the anticipation of the lights going down, the building action of conflict, the perfect timing of a character coming to catharsis, knowing just when you’re supposed to cry or laugh as an audience whole. It’s funny how in a way this journey can become incredibly familiar, perhaps even to the point of banality. It’s why, sometimes, a person in the audience coughing can so thoroughly draw attention of everyone in the room – because such events stubbornly refute the tempo and timing we expect of the moment.

Such an occurence, pedestrian as it may be, is living by the pulse of some other kind of world. It rubs so coarsely against the slickness of a polished piece, it is so imprecise and un-theatrical, that it can stubbornly demand our attention.

Reading this play I wondered, how long could you ask someone to sit in the dark and close their eyes and just… be?  Talk of such stillness in concert with dialogue so sharp that it snaps (Which this piece has, by the way. If you want a scene for young actors that is smart and sweet, the first pages of this play are quite fitting.) such contrast highlights my hunger to really experience such a sensation for myself. What if you created a space where a room full of people were asked instead of watching someone listen for the most perfect silence possible, actually were invited to find it for themselves. Silence is of course, a kind of sound, one end of a spectrum, and as a creator who very often lives in my ears, I love the idea of taking a moment with a listener to turn off the lights and work at awakening this sense. The Noise is a play filled with the sense and absence of sound, with vibrations and reverberations that move in and through us, and as a director it makes me wonder how one might take this impulse even further.

The other element suggested in the staging is The Noise itself, a kind of fantastic presence that emerges from and pulls others into darkness. The playwright notes that she first imagined the presence as a girl (10 – 16) standing in a doorframe unmoving from a nightmare she used to have as a child (can I just say, I’d love to see this nightmare?). She instructs the reader to seek an ageless quality but not an overly heavy creepiness. Like Victorian child in a frilly dress. Which is funny because it’s exactly what the others who read the play mentioned envisioning.

The Noise appears in the shadows of streetlamps with an unsettling howl. And though nothing in the play suggests it, for some reason all I could imagine was a picture from a friend’s facebook profile that looks like this:

The noiseI kept imagining the character one part jaunty animation and one part black oil from the X-Files. And it made me wonder how to create such a thing in a live performance setting. Made me want to try and create a presence out of the kind of things that theater does very well – where a thing that has no life or seems very ordinary transforms into a kind of magic.

And last, this play made me wonder about my taste for messiness.  It made me think about how strong the impulse to tie things up neatly can be and how perhaps our work, like our lives, might benefit from a bit of nasty bits left in.

So there’s week 1.

Here’s to another 51.

– A

PS – For those interested here’s her website and a bit of info on her recent work with the Arden Writer’s Room.

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